Buffalo Boom: The Struggle to Balance Rising Demand and Environmental Health

If you’re a fan of all things bison, you’d likely enjoy the captivating monthly podcast, “The Bison Insider,” helmed by Adam Ulbricht, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Bison Association. His talks range from the ins and outs of small ranches to bison calf weaning and field harvesting. A recent hot topic has been the resurgence of the bison meat market after a brief COVID-induced setback. The demand for bison meat grew by 8.5% between 2021 and 2022, marking an all-time high in animal processing. It’s not just carnivorous consumers who are keen, though. Restaurants and the snack industry are bullish on bison jerky. Even the Pentagon has set its sights on bison meat, with the House proposing an amendment to buy two million pounds a year from Tribal producers.

Yet, this flourishing demand could lead to an animal shortage by 2024, warns Ulbricht. The current U.S. bison population stands at approximately 350,000, with tribal communities managing around 20,000. Bison hold both cultural and economic significance for these communities, and many ecologists advocate for boosting their numbers due to their positive environmental impacts.

Bison are what you might call “ecosystem engineers.” They promote biodiversity with their unique grazing habits, creating grass outcroppings of various heights that offer habitats to numerous bird species. They also carve out muddy puddles through wallowing, supporting an array of insects and other animals. Bison play a crucial role in maintaining the health of grasslands, which account for one-third of global terrestrial carbon stocks.

But the challenge lies in maintaining a delicate balance between bison populations, their environmental contributions, and increasing meat demand. Troy Heinert, Executive Director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, emphasizes the need for bison to roam and graze freely to reap these ecological benefits. Implementing intensive rotational grazing systems, like those used for cattle, could help avoid overgrazing, soil erosion, and compaction. It’s worth noting that bison also emit less methane, a potent greenhouse gas, compared to cattle.

However, maintaining year-round grazing is a tough task in many parts of the country. For this reason, bison are often finished on grain for a few months before slaughter, a practice that can compromise their environmental benefits. The grain used, mostly corn and soy, also comes with a heavy environmental toll, contributing to water wastage, fertilizer pollution, and loss of ecosystems due to land conversion.

Yet, some producers are finding innovative ways to meet the rising demand for bison meat without compromising the environment. The Diamond 4D Ranch in Choteau, Montana, for instance, uses a rotational system that allows bison to choose which pastures they graze, creating biodiversity-rich landscapes.

Despite these efforts, the intensifying effects of climate change are making it harder for ranchers to cater to their bison’s grazing needs, thereby hindering their ability to meet the soaring consumer demand. Prolonged droughts have wiped out grasslands, forcing ranches like 4D to halve their herds. If more producers jump on the bison bandwagon without proper land and resource management, we may risk the same environmental damage associated with cattle farming. It’s crucial, as Heinert points out, to “let buffalo be buffalo” while managing lands sustainably.