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Bison History

The bison species is North America’s largest land animal that 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 woolly 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 1980’s 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 1990’s when farmers and ranchers discovered that the public had an appetite for this heritage food. Bison numbers have expanded Increased.

The 2021 census reported 149,539 bison on 989 Canadian farms and ranches. This reflects an annual compounded growth rate of almost 5.2% since the bison census was first taken in 1996 when 42,235 bison were reported on 745 farms.

It is estimated that as of January 1, 2017 there were almost 400,000 bison in North America of which were in tribal and ranched herds. In Canada, as of January 1, 2021 it is estimated that there were about 989 bison producers who owned almost 150,000 bison – truly a conservation success story.

Note: the industry estimate differs from the 119,314 reported in the census because it includes the 2016 calf crop less harvesting and exports.