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Economics Special: Is the bison industry buffaloed?

RAPID CITY, S.D. - The American buffalo industry is growing as both an Indian and non-Indian enterprise. Many health experts have recommended the leaner bison in place of beef for diabetic and heart patients, and many tribes are raising free range buffalo for their own people, and also as a potential commercial market.

Bison is also being heavily promoted by Turner Enterprises, spearheaded by Ted Turner's growing restaurant chain Ted's Montana Grill, which has 10 restaurants and blueprints for seven more. As the demand rises, many of the same techniques used in beef production are being employed in bison production (such as "finishing" a buffalo in a feed lot before slaughter) which many believe will destroy the benefits that bison meat has to offer. There is a current battle on whether bison should be categorized as livestock or wildlife, and the final decision will determine the future of the industry.

Fred DuBray is the executive director of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, which is currently involved with 52 tribes to restore the buffalo on Indian tribal lands. The group was founded in 1990. Since that time they have succeeded in bringing animals back to lands where they had not existed for over a century and in helping tribes in expand pre-existing buffalo programs.

Part of the mission of the ITBC is to use buffalo to restore the health of the Indian people; DuBray sees the re-establishment of the traditional cultural relationship between the tribes and the animals as a way of effecting such a change. The dilemma is that while the Indian people can benefit from the bison as food, there is an economic need to sell the meat in order keep the programs alive. "The greatest need is in our own membership, because our people are suffering from epidemic proportions of diabetes, heart disease, and other food- and diet-related diseases because of a lack of healthy food in their diet, and a lot of that is from the government commodities," DuBray told Indian Country Today. "Before we build the herds to a point where there is enough available for a viable market, we have a need within our own community. It's very important that we raise them as natural as we can on open prairies where the animals have access to the plants they have evolved with; just because they are buffalos that doesn't mean they provide a healthy food source. That's where we differentiate ourselves from most of the commercial producers; our tribes have a greater responsibility than just an economic enterprise."

The biggest booster of buffalo in the country is Ted Turner. Turner is the largest landowner in the U.S., with 14 ranches, and owns more heads of buffalo than any other rancher or organization; 35,000 (or 7.1 percent) of the 250,000 buffalos in the world.

"Turner has pretty much tried to establish a monopoly," DuBray said. "In shear numbers that pretty much puts him in control of the developing industry, and he has the financial power to create his own market and his own restaurants. That puts him in a dominating role in the whole industry. If profit is your bottom line, you're going to do whatever offers the biggest return on that investment. We try to differentiate ourselves from that whole approach. We put our spiritual relationship at the forefront of our restoration effort, and economics and diet and everything else is addressed in there, but it all has to be done in a respectful way. The buffalo has always been an economic resource to us because we used it as a food supply, so that's not a problem, it's just how it's done. We try to provide and preserve the integrity of the buffalo as well in order to preserve our relationship with the buffalo."

DuBray notes that the ITBC's efforts in the bison industry are lost in the limelight of Turner's projects. He points to the classification of buffalos, which are currently considered "exotic" animals, which means that a USDA inspection costs an extra $30 fee per animal. The push by non-Indian producers is to change the classification to "domestic livestock" so producers can save the extra charge. "If you keep them classified as wildlife, your goal is to preserve and maintain their integrity," DuBray said.

"But if it all comes down to economics, where you don't have to pay that that extra $30 fee, you're going to vote for the domestic livestock, because those other issues aren't important to you. We see them as a wildlife resource, but the USDA have research data that works for cattle, so rather than be creative and develop the materials necessary for an animal like buffalo, they act like the buffalo is close enough to a cow, so they stay with their old methods. There's also the jurisdictional aspect. It's easier for the government to compartmentalize it as 'domestic' so that it comes under the USDA rather than the Park Service.

Montana classifies buffalos as domestic livestock and the Park Service, sees them as wildlife. When the animal step across the line in Montana the jurisdiction changes from wildlife officials over to livestock officials, and the treatment of the animal changes dramatically. The dignity of the animal is well respected in the park, but when they cross the line they are treated like a pest to be shot immediately to be taken to a slaughterhouse. That has a huge impact on how our ability to manage our buffalo in the future as a wildlife resource and in preserving the dignity of the animal."

While DuBray does not see the change in the law as having an immediate effect on tribes that are raising buffalo naturally, the demand could cause tribal members to want to a heavier production, which would ruin the nutritional benefit of bison meat.

Maura Donlan, a spokesperson from Turner Enterprises, answered each of DuBray's points by saying "Most of this sound like an overall industry question, not just Turner."