Where the Buffalo Moan

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The USDA, which buys a minimum of $500 million of excess food every year, complied; it bought more than $8 million worth of excess trim in 1998 and 1999 and shipped it to dozens of Indian reservations all over the country.

But now the excess supply of trim is building up again, and even if the people who requested the previous USDA buy ask for another -- which they say they won't -- the federal government is unlikely to cut such a deal again. And so the bison industry will need to make some rapid changes if it wants to keep the price of ground meat from crashing.

"Everybody wants steaks, but it's tougher to sell burger," says Sam Albrecht, executive director of the Denver-based National Bison Association. "The fact that a surplus exists or did exist is true. It's tough. We're new. We're growing. We seem to be doing well, but we need to move more ground meat."

Albrecht speaks in a diplomatic way and can even be equivocal at times -- the NBA tries to represent all sides of the increasingly fractious industry -- but he's not afraid to point out what needs to be done to increase demand: First, the country "needs to be educated about the good taste and health benefits" of buffalo meat; second, "our members need to come up with new and better ways to promote their products"; and third, he says in a whisper, "maybe we need to review the price structure for ground bison." In other words, maybe the buffalo burger simply costs too much.

Opinions on this last point range as far as the two centers of the bison industry.

In agrarian North Dakota -- home to a huge number of buffalo ranchers, a large and powerful bison ranching cooperative and North Dakota State University's bison research program -- the people who raise buffalo believe that lower wholesale prices for ground bison meat will translate into lower prices for the animals they are raising and selling.

In slick Denver -- home to the NBA, the Denver Buffalo Company and several upscale Old West restaurants like The Fort and the Buckhorn Exchange -- salesmen think the bison industry can still make everyone rich even with lower prices, because a less expensive product will mean more customers can buy it.

"Who's right? It's tough to tell," Albrecht says. "There is a segment who thinks we still need to see the prices remain high. But the other way of thinking is that if there is really a surplus, basic marketing says if you lower the price, you increase demand. There's two ways to skin the same cat.

"We are growing at 15 to 20 percent every year, and our members are realizing more and more that we need to plan for the amount of meat we will see in the future. They want to continue to see [wholesale prices above $3]. Will they continue to see it? I don't know. There is a lot of demand out there and more that we need to create, but the market will determine the price of bison meat. Our members need to understand that, and then I think we'll take care of the trim problem -- or rather, it will take care of itself."

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody died in 1917. But not without taking a lot of buffalo with him.

Born in 1846, Cody was carrying mail for the Pony Express by the time he was fourteen, and a seasoned Civil War veteran by the time he was twenty. In 1867 he took the job that would make him famous: hunting buffalo to feed employees of the Kansas Pacific Railroad who were building a new line. (The railroads encouraged the destruction of the buffalo because the herds often wreaked havoc with the trains.)

Although he worked for the railroad only seventeen months, Cody claimed to have slaughtered 4,280 head of buffalo during that time. As a guide, a scout, an entertainer and all-round frontiersman, he would go on to kill many more.

For centuries, Native Americans had used North America's plentiful herds for everything from food to shelter to clothing to worship, but the unregulated slaughter of the buffalo in the late 1800s by men like Cody reduced the herds from about 60 million animals before the European colonization to fewer than 1,000 head by 1900. White hunters killed buffalo for food, but they took only the best parts -- the tongue, the hide, the roasts -- leaving the rest to rot, and many people, including Cody, killed them just for sport as part of tournaments. The U.S. Army also encouraged the mass killing of buffalo as a way to starve Indian tribes and convince them to stop fighting and move onto reservations.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes