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The Army killed hundreds of thousands of bison in the 1800s to cut off Native Americans’ food and livelihoods, and force them from their land. Today, as bison herds expand, lawmakers want the Pentagon to explore buying more of the protein-rich meat for US troops — and some tribes are wary.
The House annual defense authorization and spending bills released this summer would direct the Pentagon to find ways to increase the buying of bison meat, with the goal of procuring 2 million pounds a year “as a healthy and sustainable food source,” and to further “treaty and trust responsibilities and Native American Agriculture.” The Senate defense authorization measure simply encourages the Defense Department to consider bison meat for its “nutritional value.”
“It is very important from a nutritional perspective; it’s important from a land-management perspective because bison are just easier on the land,” Sen. Martin Heinrich(D-N.M.), a former Senate Armed Services Committee member, said in an interview. Most important, he said, is that “it was the American Army that almost made bison extinct — this also sends a very healing message about where we are today.” Heinrich sits on the Senate energy panel and is involved in American Indian issues.
The Pentagon would have to navigate a fine line. American Buffalo — which have the scientific name bison — are a spiritual animal for American Indians, linked to cultural rituals. While some tribes have regrown herds, others wouldn’t have enough to sell to the government, and some would be reluctant to do so before their own people are served.
“We have tribes that have a cultural herd as well as an economic herd,” said Troy Heinert, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council. “For the most part, they use bison for the cultural, spiritual connection, and use the meat to feed their people.”
Brink of Extinction
For the Plains tribes, buffalo were the center of life: a primary source of food, clothing, and shelter. By 1893, only slightly more than 300 bison remained, from an estimated 60 million at one time, according to the Department of Agriculture. Numbers have recovered since then, with about 362,406 animals in North America — 20,000 of them on tribal lands, according to the National Bison Association. In 2016, President Barack Obama enacted legislation (Public Law 114-152) making bison the official US mammal.
A few large producers have thousands of animals spread across vast landscapes. But the average producer in the US maintains a herd of fewer than 35 animals, according to the National Bison Association. The Crow Tribe of Montana is considered to have one of the largest herds, among tribes, with about 1,000 animals.
Brush Meat Processors in Colorado, which prepares bison and beef for processing at their sister company, Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, is considered one of the largest US bison processing plants, handling more than 200 animals per day. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are building a bison processing facility.
“Many of our tribal nations are trying to return the animal to the landscape,” said Jason Baldes, who sits on the executive council of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, and is the tribal buffalo program manager at the National Wildlife Federation.
“That buffalo meat should be going to our tribal people. I don’t think it should go to the military at all,” said Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in Wyoming. “Tribes have that self-determination and sovereign right. It needs to be to our specification.”
Both Heinert and Baldes stressed that Congress needs to pass the Indian Buffalo Management Act, which would secure a permanent federal obligation to support tribes in restoring buffalo on tribal lands. The House last year passed the bill (H.R. 2074) sponsored by the late Don Young (R-Alaska), but the companion measure is stalled in the Senate.
About 1 in 4 American Indians experience food insecurity, compared with 1 in 8 for Americans overall, according to the Move for Hunger organization. American Indian families are 400% more likely to report being food insecure, with limited access to sufficient, affordable food.
No tribe is going deliver on a large request from the Pentagon without filling the request for their membership first, Heinert said. Still, if the government commits to buying bison meat from the tribes, increasing and managing the herds could ultimately be beneficial, Heinert said.
“I would hope that the federal government recognizes that for far too long, tribes are always left out of the equation,” he said. “This could be an opportunity where tribes that have the capacity to use this as an economic driver, use the money to put into their buffalo program.”
The House defense authorization bill (H.R. 7900) would give the Pentagon until Feb. 1, 2023, to outline opportunities to increase purchases of bison meat and other agricultural products from American Indian tribes and organizations. The full Senate is likely to consider its version of the bill (S. 4543) in September.
The legislation is considered must-pass because it authorizes pay for troops in harm’s way. Both chambers will need to negotiate a compromise on bison meat and a host of other matters before sending the legislation for President Joe Biden’s signature.
“North Plains tribes have some level of commercial bison sales,” Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said in an interview. “I’m also looking for different ways to actually encourage economic development on tribal land, and this is actually an extension of that.” Gallego sits on both the House Armed Services and the Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples and wrote the bison provision.
He said he hopes the Pentagon makes “the correct decision that this is a viable meat product that is healthy and that is cost-effective, and that also at the same time will help develop some of our native American lands.”
Unlike the older, tougher animals that American Indians ate, today’s bison are custom-fed and slaughtered at about 18 months, leading to more tender meat. According to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, 100 grams of raw lean bison contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams fat — while the same amount of raw beef has 291 calories and 24 grams fat.
Counting in Tribes
The InterTribal Buffalo Council is preparing for phone calls and questions from the Pentagon, and is committed to connecting any interested tribes with the Defense Department, Heinert said.
But the Pentagon will have to tread carefully to navigate the congressional directive, he said. The larger bison producers that could fulfill the need at least in numbers are commercial, non-tribal ranchers. Just going to them would “defeat the purpose,” as Heinert put it.
There are about 1,800 private US ranches and farms raising bison, according to the 2017 Department of Agriculture census—the most recent. Perhaps one of the more high-profile bison ranchers is entrepreneur Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, and owner of Ted’s Montana Grill, which features bison extensively on its menu.
Tribes are a smaller part of that business. In fiscal 2021, 2,560 tribal entities had contracts with the US government totaling about $20 billion, according to Bloomberg Government data. Only a handful sold bison meat — worth about $22.7 million from 2018 through 2021, the data show.
Even if the tribes can’t fulfill the needs of the government, at least they are being considered, Heinert said in a telephone interview.
“The removal of buffalo wasn’t about the buffalo, it was about the removal of us,” Heinert said. The military has to recognize the importance of righting the wrongs “to come full circle,” he added.
2 Million Pounds
Two million pounds of bison a year would be just 2% of beef consumption in the US military, and a small fraction of the more than 60 million pounds of pork the troops eat in a year.
Still, Pentagon demand for up to 2 million pounds would translate to 5,000 to 6,000 bison slaughtered a year, said Chad Kremer, the president of the National Bison Association who runs his own grass-fed bison ranch. “In the bison business, it is something that would definitely be substantial,” Kremer said in a telephone interview.
Even though tribes may not be able to fulfill such a high request because there is “such a high variance in herds,” Kremer said, other ranchers may also have a hard time because they are small compared with the beef producers and don’t have enough processors. A purchase by the government would mean ranchers would have to set aside all their regular customers, and they aren’t willing to do that, Kremer said.
But Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), the author of the Senate defense authorization bill language, pointed to the resurgence in the animals.
“There is a lot of bison in the United States today, or we call them buffalo. They have come back in a remarkable fashion,” Rounds said in an interview. His home state has several commercial ranchers, as well as tribes growing bison.
“We just simply want to make the point that if you’ve never tried a buffalo rib-eye, you should try it because it is lean, it is healthy, and there is lots of it,” said Rounds, who also sits on the Indian Affairs Committee. “We just want to make sure that there is no limitation within the services for providing bison, or buffalo meat, as well as chicken, poultry, beef, and pork.”
An added benefit would be to offer bison to American Indians who serve in the US military, he said, and it is “a positive message to them about their culture as well.” American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average. The US population is about 1.4% American Indian and Alaska Native, while those groups’ representation in the military is 1.7% , giving Native people the highest per capita involvement of any population in the military, according to the National Indian Council on Aging.
“This is a positive step forward,” said Rounds, whose Capitol Hill office has a bison head on display.
With assistance from Kellie Lunney and Paul Murphy
To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org