Kansas hunter Danny Ewing poses on rancher Vance Hopp's land with his kill, a half-ton bull buffalo.
Latin name: Bison bison
The bison is the largest mammal on the North American continent. Mature animals can run up to 35 miles per hour and turn faster than a horse, and are considered dangerous if provoked. Full-grown bulls weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand six feet or more at the shoulder, and their horns are never shed.
Worldwide, there are three subspecies of bison: the American Plains bison, the Wood bison and the European Wisent.
French explorers called the animals "les boeufs," meaning oxen. The name changed over generations from "buffle" to "buffelo" and finally to its present "buffalo." Bison is the correct scientific and common name, but buffalo has been used and accepted for many years.
Between 1830 and 1880, large-scale bison hunts were organized and hundreds of thousands of bison were killed for their hides. Thousands were killed just for their tongues, which were considered a delicacy. By the turn of the 20th century, less than 300 wild bison remained.
Legal protection of the bison in Yellowstone Park, the establishment of preserves like the National Bison Refuge in Montana, and smaller bison ranches have helped restore the population to an estimated 350,000 animals.
Source: U.S. National Park Service, BisonCentral.com
Hunter Larry Mitchell takes aim.
At the end of the 1800s, the bison, also known as the American buffalo, was one herd shy of becoming extinct. But now the free-ranging beasts are making a comeback — so much so that buffalo meat is back on market shelves.
Yet a sour economy and little demand for the rich meat is making life hard for many buffalo ranchers. Matt Hackworth of member station KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., reports that the price for buffalo meat is so low, some ranchers are opening their herds to hunters willing to pay for the chance to stalk the enormous animals.
"The life price for selling (buffalo) has gone down to where you can't make a profit at it," says Vance Hopp, who keeps a buffalo herd on a one-mile-square tract on his family's ranch in Kansas. "It costs you as much to grass one of these buffalo cows for the year as... a calf's worth at a year old now." He tells Hackworth he'd lose money if he sold his herd of buffalo at a livestock market.
One reason is that supply greatly outmatches demand for buffalo meat. And because of the severe drought affecting huge areas of the nation and the lack of pasture grass, ranchers bear the cost of feeding the animals. The solution? "They say the best way to make money on their buffalo is to allow hunters to shoot them," Hackworth reports.
On a recent cold and windy day, Danny Ewing and Larry Mitchell — two factory workers from Hutchinson, Kan. — stalk a buffalo bull on Hopp's ranch. Bulls can't be sold at auction, mostly because they are too difficult to put in pens or transport. The hunters each paid Hopp $750 to hunt buffalo — something Ewing says he's always wanted to do, because it's a challenge.
"A buffalo has got a mind of his own," Ewing tells Hackworth. "You don't tame a buffalo like you do a cow... because they got a mind of their own, they do what they want anyway."
Because these hunts are on private property, state hunting laws don't apply — and hunters can use anything from a rifle to a bow and arrow to stalk and kill their prey. Temple Grandin, an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University who researches humane slaughter techniques, says shooting and killing buffalo in the field can be the most humane way of harvesting the meat.
The problem, Grandin says, is determining the skill of the hunter. "If you have good hunters who are good shots do it, it'd be a very humane way. But if you have Joe Public who comes out and blasts away — and maybe hits him in the foot — that's not responsible."
Ranchers like Hopp say they try to find responsible hunters. "And with prices at an all-time low, they have little choice but to allow hunters to cull their herds until the market for buffalo meat rebounds," Hackworth says.