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Extract from Part Four: Meat

Bison – Great Plains, USA

The mass slaughter of bison that took place on the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century was the greatest destruction of any wild animal witnessed in modern history. Work is underway to bring bison back. I think this bison story is one of the most moving stories in the book, a reminder to rethink our relationship with animals and meat.

Although there are thought to be half a million bison in the USA today, only a small proportion of these are pure bison. This is partly a consequence of the early conservationists crossing the wild animal with cattle, a practice that continued into the early twentieth century in an effort to rebuild bison herds more quickly. Now, with gene sequencing and selective culling, cattle genes are slowly being removed. Many projects in which bison are being reintroduced to the Great Plains are on Native American reservations. One is a partnership between Jennifer Barfield, Professor of Animal Reproduction at Colorado State University, and the Kiowa and Navajo tribes. Barfield has spent years increasing the numbers of genetically pure bison. Before the animals are transferred to the Great Plains, members of the tribes give them a blessing. Barfield had been focused on the job of making ‘bison babies’ (her words) but watching some of the ceremonies forced her to re-evaluate her work. During one, she was standing beside a pen where the bison were being held before their release onto the plains. ‘The animals knew something was happening,’ she says. ‘They were restless and moving their feet.’ When the ceremony began and the tribal leaders started to sing their buffalo song to the beat of a drum, all movement stopped and the animals fell silent. She’d spent a year with those animals and knew them really well. Usually when the bison heard unfamiliar sounds, their senses were heightened and they became agitated, but all Barfield could see here were bison eyes peering intently through the spaces of the fence. They were completely still, transfixed by the drums. At that moment she knew she was involved in something that went beyond science, genetics and conservation. ‘A different kind of connection was going on between these animals and the tribe,’ she says. Perhaps that was palpable. Outside hundreds of people had gathered to watch the bison be released out into the open, some hiking for miles to get there, ‘and when the animals burst out into the open and started to run across the ground, people started crying’.

In my own search for bison, I found myself on a sand dune in the San Luis Valley of south-west Colorado, the wind howling around me and grains of sand prickling my face. With thirty square miles of sand dunes, some that tower 750 feet high, the valley is part Lawrence of Arabia and part spaghetti western, where trails in the distance disappear through mountain passes…Right up until the 1870s, before Ute Indian tribes were moved onto reservations, Native Americans lived among the bison in this area, shifting their settlements around south-western Colorado as herds migrated through the grasslands. Today, this place is home to one of the most ambitious projects aimed at bringing bison back to the Great Plains. This is Zapata Ranch, a 100,000-acre reserve which was bought in the 1980s by a Japanese-American architect Hisa Ota. His original plan had been to turn the ranch into a high-end resort, but when he started reading about the history of bison in the area, he became fixed on the idea of helping bison return. Ota started buying up bison from private collections and bringing them to the ranch. By the late 1990s, Zapata’s bison herd was in the hundreds. This is when he handed it all over to the Nature Conservancy Trust, which now runs the ranch and takes care of the bison.

The landscape around the ranch consists of high plains desert, dry creek sand beds, running springs, vast meadow and, as Theodore Roosevelt had once described, the ‘shimmering, tremulous’ cottonwood trees with their green leaves set against the dust. My first glimpse of bison was three females drinking from one of the creeks that did have water. Each was as big as a horse, with horns that curled forwards in a C-shape. Winter was coming and their chocolate-brown winter coats were becoming shaggy. They looked powerful but there was something nonchalant about the way they lazily lapped up the water, lifting their heads up every now and then to give me a short stare. ‘They’re checking us out,’ said Kate Matheson, who is Zapata’s ranch manager, adding in reassurance, ‘Don’t worry, they’re not aggressive.’ Their nostrils were wide and their long triangular heads were covered in fluffy hair finished with the tuft of a goatee. Although they look heavy and cumbersome, bison can, for a short distance at least, hit speeds of more than thirty miles per hour and outpace most horses. Driven by powerful haunches which rise to a hump and then slope down along their back, they look like prehistoric cave paintings made flesh.

As we drove further into the expanse of Zapata Ranch, we passed four male bison calves, each the size of a fully-grown Great Dane, teenagers with awkward-looking twisted horns. Born in the spring, their orange coats were now becoming thick and dark, ready for the winter when temperatures here can drop to as low as –40°C. Nearby was a group of adult males. They would soon be moving off to spend their time in bachelor herds but for now they were still mixing with females, sniffing the air to check if any were ‘cycling’ and ready to breed. These bulky, tank-like animals weigh around 2,000 pounds. Further on, we stopped the jeep, and a thousand bison surrounded us. I watched spellbound as they looked up and stared, and then, ever so slowly, got back to the business of eating grass.

The plan at Zapata is conservation through consumption. Each autumn an audacious exercise in herding takes place as a network of fences is erected around the ranch. Wranglers (modern-day cowboys and cowgirls) then use motorbikes and a small plane to round up bison. Seven of the animals keep Zapata’s log cabin restaurant stocked with bison meat for an entire year. The rest of the cull is sold to chefs across the state, raising money for the conservation project and helping to spread awareness of the bison. The meat is tender and a little coarser and gamier than beef, chewier (in a good way).

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