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What’s on Your Plate – Buffalo Or Bison?

The majestic animals that dominated the plains landscape during our country’s early history are often called buffalo. Although mentioned in popular folk and campfire songs, the buffalo did not actually roam the Americas. The animal commonly referred to as the buffalo is actually the American bison.

The confusion of the name goes back to the days of the explorers. The word “bison” has Greek roots and means an animal that resembles an ox. Whereas, “buffalo” comes from the French word “boeufs” which means ox or bull. So the origin of the misnomer is extremely similar, leading to even more confusion. The term buffalo goes back further than the word Bison, however, Bison is the official name of the frontier symbol. The two names for the same animal were simply the result of the assimilation of the American melting pot and many cultures.

Officially, there are two species of buffalo, the African Buffalo and the Asian Buffalo, but these animals are completely unrelated to the American Bison and do not even look like Bison. So, technically, Buffalo was never native to North America. When people ask, what is the difference between bison and buffalo, the answer is “nothing” and “plenty” at the same time. When individuals refer to American imagery, buffalo and bison are commonly used interchangeably.

There was a time when bison were nearly extinct in the country’s bison belt. Their meat was valued for being nutritious and high in protein, however the real value of the bison during the westward movement was the animals’ large and plush hides. Skin parties captured animals for their skins. Unfortunately, the animals were overhunted and unable to sustain a large population.

A select few small herds survived near extinction by hiding in isolated areas such as Utah’s Antelope Island or Pelican Valley near Yellowstone National Park. In the early 1900s, some ranchers attempted to revive bison by herding small herds together to create a viable population. Because of the diligent work of these ranchers to restore the bison as a mainstay in North America, the North American bison is no longer an endangered species.

Over the past two decades, ranchers and bison enthusiasts have worked hard to restore bison as a consumable meat, a tasty alternative to beef. Many ranchers introduced bison onto their properties after learning that bison were the mainstay of the Plains Indians, who never suffered from cancer, heart disease, or strokes despite living to be eighty to ninety years old. In fact, scientists have speculated that if the Plains Indians had had dental care, they would have lived to one hundred and thirty-five.

Bison continues to grow in popularity as a table food due to the nutritional benefits of this lean red meat, including:

  • Bison meat has fewer calories and less cholesterol than chicken, fish or ostrich.
  • Bison meat is 97% fat-free.
  • Bison meat has 40% more protein than beef.
  • Eating 5 ounces of bison, 3-4 times a week can help most people lower their LDL cholesterol by 40 to 45% over a 6-month period.

Bison ranches are dedicated to promoting the conservation of bison, as well as the environment. Most bison farms allow their herds to roam large areas where the natural habitat is preserved, rather than confining the animals to pens. The animals are fed a natural diet and are not given any enhancers such as steroids or hormones. These measures contribute to both the quality and taste of the meat, while also giving the bison an enjoyable life.

So whether you’ve tasted bison meat, seen it on a menu at a local restaurant, or maybe even heard Ted Turner talk about it, it doesn’t matter if you call it “buffalo” meat – but now you know, it’s technically “bison” meat.

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