Buffelo by John Brickell
“Buffelo” by John Brickell in his Natural History of North Carolina

History of the American Buffalo in North Carolina

Bison or as some call them Buffalo once roamed the state of North Carolina feeding on the lush natural grasses and plentiful low lying shrubs. The landscape of the state has drastically changed since the last of the Carolina Bison.  Through a combination of our robust Timber Industry planting thousands of acres of forests and the removal of vast herds of Bison and Elk in the 1700’s, which helped maintain our grasslands, North Carolina is now primarily pine woodlands and heavily crowded hardwoods. 

In 1709 English naturalist and explorer John Lawson described North Carolina as having plenty of Buffalos and a few decades later Irish explorer John Brickell included illustrations of Bison in his Natural History of North Carolina.  Brickell described the Bison as serving the natives with numerous important resources such as food, bedding, clothing, and housewares. 

The Bison were clearly a very important animal to the natives of our land as well as the overall maintenance of North Carolina’s ecosystem.   

Fossil records show that the history of Bison in the area dates back some 240,000 years ago.  Some fossils found in Florida of Bisons are believed to be around 1.9 Million years old, although these findings are questionable.  The oldest confirmed Bison fossil in North America is a confirmed 240,000 years old and was found not in the Great Plains, but right near by in South Carolina.  Of course these weren’t the Bison we knew 2 centuries ago.  The first Bison in the Southeastern United States were 3,000 lb Long Horn Bison with horns that spanned up to 6 feet long.  These were called Bison Latifrons and could fend off larger predators such as saber toothed cats and dire wolves.  This large species of Bison evolved into a smaller species over time known as Bison Antiquus.  The Bison Antiquus were over hunted by mankind and effectively went extinct over 11,000 years ago.  Emerging from the Bison Antiquus were the modern day Bison Bison.  

The B. Bison were a genetic evolution from the B. Antiquus that reached sexual maturity faster and were able to reproduce fast enough to survive widespread hunting.  It is believed that the B. Bison strand started in the great plain area of North America and spread to the East Coast by 1600 AD.  Because the early European settlers had wiped out much of the Native American population in the Southeastern areas by bringing infectious diseases the Bison was unable to establish its southeastern population until the 1500’s (only to be wiped out again 2 centuries later).  Native American’s improved the ecosystem for wildlife by maintaining farmlands and burning forests.  Bison were eventually able to establish themselves in the East mainly by efforts of remaining natives. 

Bull Creek Valley
Joseph Rice Bull Creek Valley

During the 18th century settlers hunted the Bison back to extinction in the Southeast. The last known credited kill of a Bison in the state was by Joseph Rice in 1799 in Bull Creek Valley.

The 1800’s brought with it rail roads, western expansion, and inevitably lead to the great slaughter of the American Bison which literally wiped the population out to nearly 540.  A handful of ranchers worked to wrangle up remnants of the remaining herds and save the Bison from complete extinction.  

The Modern Bison

Today, thanks to the efforts of ranchers, Bison are making a comeback! There are nearly 500,000 head of Bison across America.  30,000 of these Bison live on public lands and only 15,000 are considered wild (unrestricted by any form of fencing). 

Prior to the 20th century the captive raising of Bison was widely unsuccessful.  Reasons being, they are only semi-domesticated, can run 30-50 miles per hour, have an uneven temperament, and can jump 6 feet vertically. Today, Bison are primarily raised for their meat and leather goods. In 2005, 35,000 Bison were processed for meat under the National Bison Association and USDA’s “Certified American Buffalo” program.  

Bison Impact on the Environment

There are many benefits to Bison over cattle. Environmentally, Bison are healthier grazers for our ecosystem than cattle.  This isn’t just because cattle are foreign and Bison are native.  

Bison eat primarily grasses, acorns, and nuts.  Cattle enjoy foraging on forbes which consist of wildflowers, clover, and milkweed.  Forbes are slower growing and harder for the system to replace.  They also act as a natural resource to bees and other pollinating species which we need to help keep our ecosystem strong.  

Bison are wild animals, they live outside and are hardier than cattle.  They require less maintenance and less grain substitution.  This in return requires less fuel and energy to raise Bison giving the Bison a very low carbon footprint compared to cattle.  

Hardiness of a Bison requires little to no medical attention from veterinarians, including the need for antibiotics which reduces the rise of anti-biotic resistant bacteria in our ecosystem. 

Bison are more in tune with nature and cause less damage to forage, they trample less , graze more evenly, and cause less erosion. Livestock are often a serious threat to clean water. Bison spend less time around water, in fact studies show that they avoid it, whereas cattle are attracted to the water and trees.  Cattle also graze unevenly due to their attraction to certain areas and forages.  Bison will graze over a wider spread area allowing the grasses and ground to recover naturally. 

Nutritional Benefits of Bison

The health benefits of Bison vs Beef don’t end with the ecosystem.  Bison is a meat that packs a high amount of protein yet is healthier than most white meats on the market. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 100 grams of Bison meat contains 71.59 grams of water, 146 calories, 20.23 grams of protein, 7.21 grams of fat, 2.917 grams of saturated fat, and 55 grams of cholesterol.  Bison has the highest amount of protein and lowest amount of cholesterol in comparison to turkey, chicken, beef, and pork.  Bison is the second lowest in calories and second highest in water content. 

Bison Nutrient Comparison
USDA National Nutrient Database

How does Bison compare to other wild animals? Per 100 grams, Bison has less calories than Venison (146 vs 156), but 1.97 less grams of protein. It has less fat and less saturated fat than Venison and substantially less cholesterol.  

Salmon is another tough health food contender. Still, Bison has approximately 62.51 less calories than Salmon, 6.25 more grams of protein, 9.93 less grams of fat, 3.07 more grams of iron (Bison is actually richer in Iron than all other meats), .34 less grams of saturated fat, but does have 18.85 more grams of cholesterol. 

So the next time you think eating a salmon patty or turkey burger is healthier than the traditional red meat, don’t ruin your cookout over it.  Bison is a juicy red meat that packs in more nutritional value than almost all other common meats with less calories, fat, and cholesterol.  

The best part is, it tastes better than Beef! 

Brook Trout
Caught on the Fly by Charlie in Wilson’s Creek

Trout is a very similar comparison to Bison.  With 138 Calories, 5.4 grams of fat, and 20.87 grams of protein.  

Like Bison, Trout have had to rely on the local harvesters for survival.  North Carolina is actually one of the largest producing states of farmed Trout, and our Charlie is dedicated Angler!

Bison a Viable Solution for Small Ranchers

Bison is an ideal harvest for small ranchers.  While they do require room to roam, a small rancher with 30+ acres and proper fencing can better manage Bison over Cattle.  They are more expensive per head to acquire, but are less hands on, have lower vetting bills, and more evenly graze without the burden of constantly rotating pastures.  Arguably a well managed Bison farm could potentially harbor more head of Bison than Cattle. The lower costs of raising Bison due to the wild herd vs a needy domesticated herd and the higher premium meat from Bison vs Cattle, ultimately yields higher returns for smaller ranchers.