BIG SKY, Mont. — Two hundred years ago, the North American bison herd was 30 million animals strong.
Today, the goal is to increase numbers to one million from the current 392,000 animals in the United States and Canada.
It’s called Bison One Million, a plan officially announced during the International Bison Conference July 4-7.
“We’re going to really push hard on the Bison One Million, but the flip side of it is we want to do it right,” said National Bison Association executive director Dave Carter.
Doing it right means preserving bison’s image and its reputation for producing healthy, naturally raised meat.
Carter said bison will never be-come a commodity like beef, nor is that the goal.
Current figures show it’s a niche product at best, with U.S. per capita consumption of bison meat at .08 pounds. That hardly compares to the 50 to 52 lb. per capita for beef.
Even if bison consumption were to triple, it would still constitute one quarter-pounder for every American, Carter said.
Last year, Canada processed about 10,000 bison and the U.S. processed 62,000, of which 34 percent came from Canada.
“That’s what the beef industry does before noon on an average day,” said Carter about slaughter levels. “We never see ourselves as competing against beef.”
Bison is selling for about US$5 per lb. now, having risen from the doldrums of the early 2000s when carcasses were selling for $1.60 per lb.
Demand is now exceeding supply by an estimated 10 to 25 percent, according to the NBA’s regular survey of commercial bison marketers. However, building the North American herd to one million will be a slow process, said NBA president Roy Liedtke, who raises bison in Texas and Wyoming.
Simple biology is a major factor. Bison breed at two years old, calve at three and grow more slowly than cattle. If grass-finished, as most of them are now, it takes longer to reach slaughter stage and weight.
Expanding the herd also means promotion to maintain and in-crease consumer demand for the product. Higher slaughter numbers will mean fewer breeding animals.
“It’s going to take 15 to 20 years,” said Liedtke about the million-animal goal. “It’s going to be awhile.”
He thinks hitting 500,000 within three years will be a stretch, although possible.
“The demand is out there. The people want it,” he said. “The thing that we’ve talked about, too, is it’s not just the private ranchers. We need to collaborate with the conservation folks. We need to get more animals in parks, in conservation areas, state parks, national parks. We need to collaborate with the tribal folks because they’re trying to increase their herds.”
It’s also going to require more new producers to enter the industry, a goal both the Canadian Bison Association and the NBA have been working on.
CBA president Sharif Famihy said he’s confident existing producers can increase their numbers.
“I think that the producers are able to expand their herds and build their herds so we are able to meet the demand. We have a shortage right now, so it’s basically looking into the future,” said Famihy.
“Last year at our convention, the main theme was building the herd, so we are doing work and we’re on the same page, north and south of the 49th (parallel).”
Another challenge involves preservation of bison’s “green halo,” the image of the animals as grass-fed, natural, raised without use of growth hormones or antibiotics and raised on range rather than confined.
Will expanding the herd mean finding more grassland, or will it mean more bison in feedlots?
Proponents of holistic principles say better management of existing grassland can increase carrying capacity.
As demand for bison increases and if the industry remains profitable, it might also encourage some people to take land out of crops and put it back into grass and forages for grazing.
“You have to plan for that transition,” said Sarah Gleason, director of marketing and communications for the Savory Institute.
“Often times with producers that I have seen do it, it happens gradually over time, but we have seen multiple cases in multiple different contexts around the world, around the U.S. and in Canada, of people who have very successfully taken either beef or bison and converted cropland back to healthy grasslands. So I think it’s very doable.”
Cody Spencer, a producer with animals in Foremost, Alta., and Pincher Creek, Alta., is cautious in his support for Bison One Million.
“I think that it’s kind of a good lofty goal to have, but at the same time I’m a little bit worried about how we’re going to go to that one million,” he said. “I don’t want to see three-quarters of those animals in feedlots because that’s not the image, in my mind, that we should be portraying, the production method in general.
“I think if we are able to grow to one million in a sustainable way, that being in my mind more pasture-based bison, then I think it’s a great goal.”