There's more capitalism than altruism these days behind the resurgence of the once nearly extinct buffalo - the shaggy animals are easier to raise, fetch more per pound and are lower in fat and cholesterol than beef.
The buffalo, which once roamed the Great Plains like a moving black robe, was hunted for meat and hides in such great numbers that historians say by 1889 fewer than 600 remained. Since 1970, the number of buffalo has doubled in this country to about 60,000, according to the American Bison Association.Some Triad diners are getting to like the taste of buffalo, says a restaurateur who serves buffalo, game meats and other exotic fare including alligator, quail and antelope.
``It's one of our better sellers when it's on the menu,' said Pete Mendenhall, who owns The Paisley Pineapple on South Elm Street in Greensboro with his twin brother, John, and sister M.C. Jones.
Buffalo tenderloin tastes more sweet than filet mignon, Mendenhall said, and the buzzwords of ``low-fat' and ``low-cholesterol' have drawn new customers.
The restaurant's sources for buffalo meat, arranged by an Atlanta suppliers are farms in Canada and the Midwest, Mendenhall said.
The Buffalo Ranch Trading Post near Concord, N.C., has 16 buffaloes - but not to eat.``They're just to look at,' said a caretaker of the tourist attraction, which features stagecoach rides and a petting zoo.
About 400 stockmen, ranchers like Brian Ward of Center, have gone into raising buffalo because of a beef market made unstable by U.S. eating habits. Ward runs 1,700 head on his 100,000-acre spread in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley and sells about 100,000 pounds of boneless meat a year.
Buffalo meat also brings twice the price of beef and it's lean meat. A 3-ounce serving has 93 calories, compared with 183 for beef; 43 milligrams of cholesterol, compared with 55 for beef; and 1.8 grams of fat. compared with 8.7 for beef, the association says.
A buffalo cow can give birth to calves for 30 years or more, while a cow is usually sent to slaughter after about 10. Stockmen can also sell skulls for $100 or so, uncured robes for $6 to $12 a square foot, and mountable heads for $400 on up.
The symbol of the American West is an imposing animal. It has a black-brown, shaggy head and cape and short curved black horns. A mature bull stands more than 6 feet tall at its hump and weighs 2,000 pounds.
A century ago, the buffalo was nearly exterminated as the railroads pushed westward. The slaughter was triggered by demand for meat to feed the rail crews and the crowded East, a new tanning method that let the spongy hides be used as leather, and political expediency - to destroy the Plains Indians' food supply.
Historians estimate 6.3 million buffalo were killed in seven years.
It wasn't until the early 20th century that buffalo preservation became a concern. The newly created American Bison Society and President Teddy Roosevelt were able to persuade Congress to set up preserves in Oklahoma and Montana in 1907. By then there were several hundred buffalo in private herds.
``It was the ranchers who really took it upon themselves to save the bison,' bison society President Duane Lammers said. ``Some of those early people who wanted to save the buffaloes had Indian heritage, some had Indian wives. It was very important to them to save the bison.'
Staff Writer Libby Lewis contributed to this report.