Not long ago, it was bison that dominated North America, reaching into the tens of millions, whereas beef cattle were relative newcomers, introduced by European settlers and miniscule in number.
Today, those numbers have been flipped: there are 90 million cattle in the U.S. and roughly 185,000 bison (another 150,000 are being grazed in Canada). Having barely survived the U.S. government slaughter of the 1800s, modern bison is therefore a niche delicacy.
Even so, bison meat is beginning to show up in more places—in freezers at Costco, on menus at bowling alleys, and in the pockets of amateur athletes in the form of energy bars. Growing consumer preference for lean, grass-fed meats that are humanely raised and offer a taste of place is driving today’s steadily increasing demand. (The recent designation by Congress of bison as the national mammal may spark further interest.)
But consumer perception about how bison are raised doesn’t always line up with the reality. A common assumption is that all bison are raised on grass and live their entire lives under “purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain.”