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Friday, May 24, 2024

Green shoots: Where the buffalo roam

Jerry Nelon says he raises bison to support his golf game. Problem is, says his wife Robin, her husband, 74, never swings the club. “That’s just a thing he says,” she notes. “He doesn’t play golf, he’s a workaholic.”

Nelon has nearly 100 bison on his 153-acre Polk County farm in Green Creek, between the western North Carolina towns of Forest City and Columbus. He has been raising bison for about 20 years and now has about 15 calves. The need for a liver transplant last year, which he blames on contact with Agent Orange while serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, kept Nelon from selling any of his herd for three years. Now feeling healthy, he has sold 13 in the past two months.

“They’re just too hard to catch,” he says. A bull can weigh more than 2,000 pounds — an adult cow weighs about 1,400 pounds — and stand more than 6 feet tall. They prefer to be left alone, says Nelon.

“Go out there and try to catch one. They’ll have your a.. up a tree,” Nelon says without abbreviating his words. “They really are calm animals until you try to catch one.”

An adult bison fetches about $3,000 at market, he says. Most customers buy bison as a healthier meat alternative, says Nelon, who is one of a handful of bison ranchers in North Carolina.   

Bison meat has about a third of the grams of fat, almost three times as much iron and fewer calories than skinless chicken, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same organization says 100 grams of raw bison contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams of fat. The same amount of raw beef contains 291 calories and 24 grams of fat.

Still, bison consumption is limited at less than a pound per capita of annual consumption in the United States, according to the National Bison Association. Most grocery store chains and some restaurants offer bison meat for sale. People generally like its taste, but it costs more than other proteins, Nelon says. “People just like to look at them.”

About 300 years ago, bison roamed much of North Carolina. There are at least 40 locations in the state named for the buffalo – places like Buffalo Shoals in Catawba County and Buffalo Ford in Randolph County. A plaque at milepost 373 of the Blue Ridge Parkway marks where Joseph Rice, an early settler of the Swannanoa Valley, shot that area’s last bison in 1799.  

The American bison – early settlers called them buffalo, derived from the French word “bouef” for beef – joined the bald eagle as the official symbol of the U.S. in 2016, when it was named the country’s national mammal. In the early 19th century, between 30 million and 60 million of the majestic animals roamed North America. Their story is tied to the history of America’s first Transcontinental Railroad and intertwined with many Indigenous communities, which used the animal for food, clothing and to make tools.

The bison’s demise came in the 1800s when they were slaughtered by hunters, travelers and U.S. troops. The completion of the cross-country railroad in 1869 accelerated the decimation. By 1900, naturalists estimated fewer than 1,000 bison remained, according to the National Park Service. 

Now, there are about 400,000 head of bison in North America, according to the national trade association. Seventeen bison herds — or approximately 10,000 bison — live on public lands managed by the Department of the Interior. That’s about one-third of the wild bison in North America.

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