Bison History

The bison species is North America’s largest land animal and dominated the North American continent from the time of the ice age until the coming of the Europeans to this continent. Some believe that the early bison and man followed the land bridge connecting Asia and North America some 10,000 years ago. The saber-toothed tigers and the wooly mammoth couldn't successfully adapt to a warming climate, but bison found the grassy plains very accommodating.

The aboriginal people who made the migration over the same land bridge found the abundant supply of bison a very good reason to stay on this side of the bridge. These animals would provide them with food, shelter, tools and fuel for thousands of years. Over time the aboriginal people came to regard the bison as their special gift from the Great Spirit.

Strong winds of change came with the European settlers coming to North America. As settlers moved into the centre of the continent looking for land to farm, minerals to mine and towns to build, the natural home of both the native people and bison diminished. Historical accounts suggest there were 60 million bison in 1800, and in 1899 there were less than 1000 bison left.

The complete loss of a species was prevented by the efforts of ranchers, and conservationists in both Canada and the United States. Some herds were kept in national parks and individual ranchers kept some small herds privately. Gradually the population stabilized and began to grow slowly. In the 1980s some ranchers who had been supplying the local markets began to have enough product to sell to outside markets. A new livestock industry began in earnest in the 1990s when farmers and ranchers discovered that the public had an appetite for this heritage food. Bison numbers have expanded significantly.

In 2005, it was estimated that there were over 500,000 bison on farms and ranches in North America. In Canada it is estimated that there are almost 2000 bison producers who own over 250,000 bison. Because of consumer demand and the initiatives of farmers and ranchers the population of this almost extinct animal continues to grow – a conservation success story.