THE BUFFALO knows. Oh, the things it knows. Any doubters should mosey over to one of a few dozen Northwest buffalo ranches, peer straight into the untamed eyes of North America’s oldest, most-regal survivor, and say it ain’t so.
A tip: Unless you have head-smashed-in medical coverage, do this from a distance. A big bull weighs more than a Smart Car and would blow its doors off in a quarter-mile sprint. It is a ton of muscled grit with a battering-ram head tipped by footlong, groin-gouging spears. When it aims that skittish, “Feeling-lucky-Punk?” glower at you, something deep within you knows that it knows that it could pound you into dust before you had a chance to wet your pants.
This is what separates the buff from all bovine pretenders, says Doug Stroud of Snohomish, a professional horse trainer who uses the beasts as a spirited practice-roundup herd.
“All animals have a bubble,” he says. “A cow, after you work it, you can walk up to within 2 feet of it and look at it nose to nose. It just stares at you: ‘I’m tired. I’m done. I’m a pig.’ A buffalo? His bubble is 10-15 times that size. You can’t approach him.”
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So go ahead, stare one down, pay your respect. A lot of us see in those brown eyes a reflection of self-loathing — a silent acknowledgment that our forebears almost wiped this spectacular animal from the planet, mostly just for what then passed for fun. You might wonder if the buffalo, looking back, sees right through us; whether it somehow knows that respective places on the sides of the fence are purely an accident of nature — and modern firearms.
Of all living things, in fact, the buffalo is the single creature best-suited to reign over all the land from the mountains, to the prairies, to the edge of those oceans, white with foam and shipping-container flotsam.
Who, exactly, were we to say otherwise?
There’s the question. It’s the one that lures, then keeps, modern buffalo people — hobby-farm ranchers in Ferndale, climate-change fighters in South Dakota, public-land managers in Montana and native tribes across the land — in a passion/business slowly expanding across America’s West.
Within most of our lifetimes, the American plains bison (that’s the more scientifically precise term) has rebounded from fewer than 1,000 animals a century ago to nearly half a million in North America today.
That speaks volumes, not only about the animal’s adaptability, but about the iconic power of the beast memorialized on coins, government crests and football helmets. The buffalo long ago burrowed out a large wallow in our collective identity. Respect, tinged with shame, anchors it there.
Ranchers “all speak of them with reverence,” says Alan Douglas, proprietor of Bridge Creek Bison, a 1,200-acre spread in the high desert country near Silver Lake, Ore. “I’m just intrigued with the fact that they’ve been running around this earth for millions of years, and they’re still here.”
With little fanfare, North America’s largest and most crafty mammalian survivor — nearly vanquished, but never domesticated — today quietly marches along the comeback trail. Destination? Unknown.
NOW THAT you’re drenched in the essential oils of buffalo iconography, set aside all this shame and connection-with-the-land hoo-haw long enough to consider one ironic reality: In addition to their place in our romantic vision of the West, buffalo are thriving once more because they also happen to be quite tasty.
More than a decade ago, a handful of savvy consumers — your typical, slow-food, health-nut, “locavore” types — discovered that buffalo was, in fact, The Other Red Meat.
Buffalo meat has one-tenth the fat and less than half the calories of beef, and is much higher in vitamin E, antioxidants and other nutrients. As a wild animal that grazes on just about anything, it usually contains no hormones or other chemicals. For people stomach-tripping back in time via something like the Paleo Diet, buffalo is manna.
Spendy manna, sure. But with prices ranging from about 10 bucks a pound for ground, on up to $25 a pound for finer cuts, buffalo meat is not that far out of line with other grass-fed, sometimes organic, specialty meats.
This is why, if you visit John and Sue Muggy’s Lone Boot Buffalo Ranch north of Ferndale, you will find buffs running around for fun in lush green pastures — and a few of their relatives in vacuum-packed chunks, in a basement deep freeze.
Like most other small-scale buffalo ranchers, the Muggys adore the beast and say raising them is a labor of love. Sending a few off to the butcher — or “watching them go down the driveway” as Sue Muggy prefers to say — allows their business/retirement hobby to sustain itself.
They try not to, but heck, sometimes you get attached. The Muggys’ herd acts just like buffalo always have: They bunch up when approached, and any sudden itch or notion one of them gets might send the whole crowd into motion for no apparent reason. (For people, this is get-out-of-the-way time. While most animals run, “buffalo run stupid,” explains buffalo-whisperer Stroud. “They’ll go right through something.”)
One of the Muggys’ buffalo, however, is close to their hearts, and acts accordingly: “Junebug” arrived at the ranch as an orphaned, 3-week-old calf. The Muggys hand-fed her and, as an adult, she acts more like a domesticated animal than her herd mates.
When Sue Muggy calls her, Junebug clambers cautiously closer.
“She thinks I’m her mom,” Sue says.
Right behind Junebug, another buffalo keeps close watch over her 4-day-old calf. Whenever the calf moves, the cow instinctively places herself between it and the human interlopers.
“They’re wild animals,” Sue says admiringly. “For us, it’s really just the majesty of them.” She points to the top of a nearby tree, where a bald eagle has just lit. “Watching them run out here is like watching that eagle.”
“WE WERE ONLY going to have three,” says John Muggy, who’s retired from the nearby BP refinery. He got into the business under the tutelage of a now-retired buffalo rancher Bruce Wilson in 1992. “Without him, I’d probably be dead,” John says, chuckling.
Since those early days of just Muff, Buff and Tuff, the 20-acre Lone Boot Ranch has been home to dozens of cows and four breeding bulls, one of which, 2,600-pound “General,” traced its lineage to the wild herd in South Dakota’s Custer State Park.
The Muggys’ path is a common one for the modern buffalo rancher, most of whom run fewer than 100 head. After a number of fits and starts, buffalo meat production has become a stable business with demand constantly outpacing supply. But many newbie ranchers fit the mold of the Muggys: They love the buffalo more than the ranching and probably wouldn’t raise any other animal.
That’s also the case for Northwest native tribes, such as the Stillaguamish, Yakama, Kalispel and Spokane, which have begun raising buffalo meat to sell or distribute to their own communities.
Most other ranchers sell their meat directly to consumers, either in person, at farmers markets, through co-op stores or via pacts with local-food cooperatives. About 10 percent of the meat nationally is sold online, frozen and fast-shipped. The meat is butchered under USDA inspection, but the market is minuscule compared to the beef industry.
About 60,000 buffalo were processed in the U.S. in 2013, says Jim Matheson, assistant director of the Colorado-based National Bison Association. By comparison, the country goes through about 125,000 cattle per day.
That tiny sector is just fine with most producers.
Consumers, increasingly wise to the path their food takes from source to table, are catching on to the goofy, but undeniable, notion that buffalo might best be saved by eating a few here and there.
The buffalo world is not occupied by large numbers of cattle ranchers who jumped ship. Many buffalo ranchers, like the Muggys, had little experience when they got hooked. Which is just as well, because managing herds of buffalo has little in common with raising herds of cattle.
Buffalo are strong, smart, agile, belligerent and self-sufficient. Because a buffalo can create the ramming force of a small locomotive by running 35 mph — and leap a 7-foot fence if pushed — more ample fencing is required. But unlike cattle, buffalo are never really handled. They need no help calving, require no shelter and really have no use for people at all.
It only takes a glimpse at a map of their former habitat, which stretches over immense swaths of the continent, to appreciate Matheson’s assessment of the buffalo’s rightful place in our environment.
“They belong in the landscape.”
COULD THEY really reclaim some of it?
Some optimistic conservationists have urged formation of a national grassland, perhaps shared with Canada, where buffalo could roam (mostly) free of fences and highways once more. But the prospects are unlikely.
Today, the closest “wild” buffalo experiences are found at Custer State Park, the National Bison Range near Polson, Mont., and at Yellowstone National Park, home to about 4,600 bison believed to be the most genetically pure remnant of a prehistoric Great Plains herd that once numbered 60 million.
During the “Buffalo Bill Cody” heydays of the 1860s, with America hellbent on westward expansion, the buffalo — like the native tribes that hunted it for millennia — got in the way. The rest is tragic history, on both counts. By the time it all ended, up to 50 million buffalo had been slaughtered; only around 500 were left standing.
Ranchers and researchers kept the species alive, in small enclaves, for decades, engaging at one point in forced-interbreeding experiments with cattle that mostly went nowhere. (Genetic sampling has shown that tiny remnants of cattle DNA survive in many modern herds, save for the one in Yellowstone.)
But the growing spread of hobby ranches and small-scale meat vendors is putting the animal back within sight of larger numbers of Americans, most of whom probably have never seen a buffalo in person.
“We’ve really brought the animal back from the brink of extinction,” Matheson says. And fortunately, it has survived in something near its original condition.
That in itself is a blessing, because the buffalo was a keystone species for much of North America, biologists remind us. Herds of buffalo roaming farther than the eye could see literally created the Great Plains, with seemingly inexhaustible buffalo dung providing the fertile base for oceans of grasslands that nurtured countless other animal and plant species.
Not even the most ardent buffalo fan expects the beast to resume that fertilizing role. But a few stubborn believers haven’t given up on the idea entirely.
ONE OF THOSE guys is Dan O’Brien, a former bird biologist who wound up buying a forlorn ranch along the Cheyenne River in South Dakota, smack dab in the buffalo’s former heartland.
O’Brien tells his tale in a new memoir, “Wild Idea: Buffalo & Family in a Difficult Land.” A man with an appreciation for the past, the soul of a poet — and, coincidentally, a wife, Jill, who can run a meat business, he is philosophical about the buffalo’s place in his life, on America’s plains, and in our hearts.
“It really is a great American story,” he says of his family business, Wild Idea Buffalo, which ships choice meat from buffalo all over the country.
O’Brien set out to prove that grazing buffalo could be a sustainable product, with meat sales contributing, drop-by-drop, to the restoration of the Great Plains. Buffalo in the Wild Idea network — some on the O’Briens’ ranch, some in herds maintained by the Lakotas and other Great Plains tribes — live in something close to a natural way.
When they’re harvested, they’re not force-fed grain for fattening and not frightened into slaughter pens. After a short prayer ceremony led by tribal members, they are shot in the field, then swiftly processed in a tractor-trailer mobile unit (the trailer was built in Bellingham; the design borrowed from similar equipment used to slaughter pigs and sheep on Lopez Island).
The meat is whisked off to online customers willing to pay a bit more for roaming, grass-fed buffalo just like they fork over for organic fruits or vegetables grown in the Skagit Valley.
IT’S WORKING. At least sort of. O’Brien has no expectation of wealth, but he’s stopped going into debt.
“The idea was to make the ecosystem of the Great Plains whole,” he says. “You can’t just take 30 million to 50 million large herbivores out of the system and expect it to ever be the same . . . The buffalo meat is really a byproduct of a deep conservation ethic.”
Evidence: Wild Idea recently signed a deal with Patagonia, the estimable sportswear company. Its meat products were chosen for the “Patagonia Provisions” line (motto: “Rethinking the Food Chain”).
O’Brien, 66, does not expect the Great Plains to be restored next week by people picking up a side of buff jerky with a fleece vest made from recycled soda bottles. He knows little steps like that are akin to whizzing into the gale-force winds of climate change. But he looks around at 11 million acres of former Plains land controlled by Native Americans, to whom the animal remains sacred, and sees possibilities. You put the buffalo back in its rightful place, and who knows?
At the very least, a business like Wild Idea might serve as a “template” for future generations.
“If other people who are worried about salmon, birds and other things could use their good brains to figure out how the template applies to their situation, I would be a happy camper,” O’Brien says.
To him and others, the irony is inescapable: When it comes to fixing the planet, “dumb” animals all around us instinctively have the answers. The buffalo knows, and it is not alone. The one animal that doesn’t — that animal holds the keys to all the gates.
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.