Like the other 4 million or so visitors expected to wander around Yellowstone National Park this summer, we had come to see the bison. And we found them. Hulking, shaggy, majestic, nose-down nibbling on fresh spring grass, their tails swishing. At our safe and respectful distance, my family stood quietly in awe. And then, being the good, nature-loving Americans that we are — we were suddenly starving.
Finding America's newly minted national mammal on menus in and around Yellowstone and its national park neighbor, the Grand Tetons, is an exercise in easy. We knew there'd be a mountain of buffalo burgers to be had, but hadn't predicted all the other tasty (and unfortunately, some not-so-tasty) bison-based dishes we'd find sprinkled on menus throughout the region.
"Visitors see the animals and then they seek it out," says Will Bradof, chef and co-owner of The Local in nearby Jackson, Wyo., whose bison tartare was off-the-hook delicious.
Whether chefs called it bison or buffalo, we were game to try it.
The bison found on menus here are not the same bison found strolling the parks. While current population estimates put Yellowstone's wild herd size at 4,600 (the largest), and the Grand Tetons' at 900, the bison served at restaurants and sold at supermarkets is all farm-raised. And while it's offered in abundance here, it's still considered a specialty item nationwide.
"The last time we looked, consumption of bison was .02 pounds per person per year. That's about one burger a year," says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. "To put that in perspective, last year we processed 60,000 animals for the year. The beef industry does that before noon on an average day."
Whether it was buttermilk biscuits smothered in buffalo sausage gravy, petite buffalo sliders, bison carpaccio, bison bratwurst, or hot-off-the grill buffalo ribeyes, it turns out bison is a breakfast, lunch or dinner kind of protein. And it's something visitors clamor for when visiting these parks.
Kevin Humphreys, executive chef of Spur Restaurant and Bar in Teton Village, says he can go through more than 200 pounds of bison a week.
"It's regional cuisine here," he says. "When you drive through Yellowstone all day and see the bison, you naturally think of it when you see the menu."
Close your eyes and you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference between beef and bison. Their flavor profiles are similar. Bison are leaner. The mouthfeel isn't as fatty in texture, and depending on the cut, bison can have a deeper, richer flavor. Carter describes it as having a sweeter taste than beef.
For Rick Wallen, the lead wildlife biologist for the bison program at Yellowstone National Park, what makes the bison special is a lot more than just flavor. These animals represent a uniquely American story of resilience. They're a symbol of wilderness during our nation's expansion to the West. As many as 60 million bison once roamed a great portion of the West before they were decimated by hunting. Estimates suggest anywhere from a few hundred thousand to a half-million bison still live on the continent, most of them in captivity.
"Bison have never completely disappeared from the Yellowstone landscape. They've continuously existed here," says Wallen. "Our [restored] population [allows] visitors of the world to experience what people experienced when they encountered bison across the plains hundreds of years ago."
Conservation efforts were key to bolstering bison populations, but the bison themselves are extremely adaptable to a variety of environmental conditions, says Wallen. "That should do them justice as a survival tactic for the next millennium."
That scientific affection hasn't prevented Wallen from being a culinary admirer.
"I'm a fan of bison prime rib and hamburgers," he says. "Hamburgers because they go well with beer, and the prime rib because it's excellent with wine."