Any Canadian living in the 21st century has heard of Alberta beef, but how many people's dinner plates have benefited from the country's recent bison renaissance? Bison were abundant in North America for over 10,000 years, and there were approximately 60 million bison roaming the continent at the turn of the 19th century. The First Nations were deeply connected to the animal, relying on them for food, clothing, tools, and more.
By 1899, the arrival and settlement of European communities and introduction of unsustainable hunting practices had reduced the bison population to just under 1,000. Today, the presence of bison is the result of a huge conservation effort, and there are now approximately 500,000 bison on the continent. Of those, 240,000 are in Canada, and about half of the Canadian population resides in Alberta.
If you've ever watched a bison attack video on Youtube, you know to keep your distance from them - bison can weigh up to 2,500 pounds, and are quick. That's why we were nervous when we found ourselves planted within a herd of them at Maple Hills Bison Farm, just south of Edmonton. While we trusted Gus Janke, owner and operator of the farm, we kept our backs to the truck, and hopped back in as soon as one stomped the ground.
Everything about these beasts seems larger than life. They're the biggest land mammals in North America, with a thick haunch and lean rear that make them look comically out of balance. A herd of bison can run sustained speeds of 30 miles per hour, and jump a 5-foot fence with both ease and grace.
Why is their popularity growing so steadily with today's consumers? Firstly because their meat is nutritious; it has less cholesterol, calories, and fat than conventionally-raised beef, yet possesses significantly more protein. Secondly, bison are on the rise because they're animals that aren't suited to feedlots. They generally graze in open land, are free of hormones and steroids, and aren't immobilized for fattening. This means they're a great alternative for those seeking ethically-raised meat. Bison also don't require any shelter or wind protection; they're wild and independent beasts, built for survival.
In addition to raising bison on their natural diet, Maple Hills is also off the grid; the farm, just south of Edmonton, has an all-season solar power automatic water pump system. The bison are butchered and packaged just 42 miles away, and distributed by Gus himself.
When we arrived at the farm, we were indifferent to bison, but by the time we left, we were in utter awe of them. We felt privileged to have had the opportunity to get so close to them, even if a Texas Longhorn cattle rancher later called us "maniacs" for doing so.
After our Maple Hills visit we have this advice: should you come across a wild herd, stick to your car, and should you come across bison on a menu, order it. You'll be happy with both decisions.
Follow Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@feast_on