To Preserve The Species, Eat It
To Preserve The Species, Eat It
Bison Conservation And Meat Intertwine For Farming Couple
A decade ago, Leawood native Amy Dunn was living in Kansas City, Missouri, and selling books at Barnes & Noble. And even though she was apprenticing as a horse trainer, she was no more country than a suburban horse.
Her boyfriend, Michael Billings, wasn’t much different. He was a city-dwelling software engineer who also boarded horses.
But both of them yearned to have open space for their dogs and horses. So when they married in 2008, they purchased 80 acres in Kingsville, Missouri, a small township about 30 miles southeast of Lee’s Summit.
Not hunters like the previous owner, the Billingses delighted in the slow return of creatures: ducks landing on their pond, deer grazing the perimeter of their yard, and occasional coyote or bobcats rounding out the picture.
Then, in 2011, as the couple was brainstorming how they could preserve the surrounding ecosystem, Michael half-jokingly threw out the idea of raising bison.
All You Wanted To Know About Bison But Were Afraid To Ask
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Missouri and Kansas each have their own associations; Missouri’s has 90 members, Kansas’ has 110.
Michael Billings is president of the Missouri Bison Association.
It sounded crazy until the software engineer whipped up a spreadsheet. They ultimately bought a 13-bison “starter kit,” as Amy called it, for what is now a full-fledged business. And they serve as an example of how conservationists are taking an unexpected approach to bringing back this symbol of the American West.
Bison once roamed North America in the millions — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that prior to the arrival of European settlers, the continent may have been home to as many as 60 million.
By 1884, 325 bison remained in the United States.
It turns out that killing all the bison was not a good idea; they are what’s called a “keystone” species, which play an integral role in maintaining nature’s delicate balance.
Bison are essential in many ways, said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, which is headquartered near Denver.
For one, he said, their foraging helps preserve grasslands by eliminating excess growth, meaning that the remaining grass has stronger roots. Left unchecked, the excess forage would choke out all the grass, contributing to global climate change by leaving a desert that no longer removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Additionally, the 2,000-pound bison stir the soil, tamp down grass seed, and create “prairie potholes” that capture rain and serve as watering holes for other animals.
“We felt that if we were really serious about helping to restore the ecosystem,” Amy said, “the choice we needed to make was to bring back that animal.”
Today, North America is home to nearly half a million bison, 90 percent of which are managed by the approximately 2,500 private bison ranches counted in a U.S. Department of Agriculture census.
But the National Bison Association, the Intertribal Buffalo Council, private ranchers and conservationists say half a million isn’t enough.
That has given rise to the Bison 1 Million plan. And, as the Billingses’ approach illustrates, one seemingly unlikely way organizers hope to reach that goal is through consumers’ palates.
As it turns out, conservation and slaughter are not incompatible.
“When you have consumers that are interested in bison meat, and they’re buying it, and you can’t meet the demand, then you create the opportunity for more producers to want to get into it and raise more bison,” Amy said. “As long as there’s a demand, we can have more animals.”
Meat production also helps cull the herd. Each animal requires about 3 acres, and the Billingses are pushing the limit with 100 animals on the 330 acres they now own.
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