- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

DENVER (AP) — The irony of bison ranching isn’t lost on Dave Carter. Recovering the once nearly extinct creatures has required raising them for slaughter.

The proof is in the numbers, said Mr. Carter, executive director of the Colorado-based National Bison Association. About 35,000 bison were processed nationwide last year, up 17 percent from 2004.

More than 250,000 bison roam ranches across the country. The massive, shaggy animals that once roared across the North American plains by the millions were decimated by widespread slaughter during westward growth, dropping to an estimated 1,000 or fewer by the late 1800s.

“As we continue to rebuild the herds out there and to bring the species back from a point where it was on the brink of extinction 120 years ago, it really requires that it end up on the dinner plate for the ranchers to have the incentive to bring the animals back,” Mr. Carter said.

Starting in the late 1970s, he said, a few ranchers decided that bison deserved to be more than a novelty.

Media mogul and bison rancher Ted Turner has helped raise the industry’s profile through his Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant chain, which specializes in bison meat. The chain has 39 restaurants in 16 states, more than twice the number in 2004.

Still, Mr. Carter concedes the industry likely will remain a bit player. Although the 35,000 bison processed last year was a healthy increase, “the beef industry does more than that before lunch,” he said. About 125,000 cattle are processed every day, and the industry is measured in billions. Mr. Carter estimates that annual bison sales amount to $112 million.

The bison industry’s small scale, though, has worked to ranchers’ benefit, Mr. Carter said. One of the industry’s selling points is that about 50 bison typically are processed daily in small plants, compared with thousands of cattle a day in large industrial facilities. The belief is that smaller and slower translate into more care and attention.

The National Bison Association, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has developed a program to track bison from birth to dinner table through ear tags containing radio chips. The meat gets a “Certified American Buffalo” label.

The industry nearly collapsed in the late 1990s. Mr. Carter said the meat, more expensive to produce because of the smaller numbers, appealed to customers willing to pay high prices for the best cuts in the supermarket or expensive restaurants.

That left producers with a lot of burger meat and chuck roasts and less money to buy live animals. So, the association and ranchers stepped up marketing, promoting bison’s lean meat — about 2.5 grams of fat per 100 grams, compared with about 8 to 10 grams for beef.

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