The iconic bison or buffalo as they are often referred to are much more than a relic of the Old West. "They are our livelihood," said Ron Miskin, of The Buffalo Wool Comapny headquartered in Texas.
The Miskin family has been raising bison for over 30 years. And, they specialize in bison because of the outstanding qualities that bison have.
Miskin talked with this reporter by phone and explained that most people don't know of the little-known qualities of the buffalo. "Bison meat is much leaner and higher in protein than beef." "Buffalo don't get cancer and tend to stay healthier than most cattle," he said. That is something that environmentalists could say is probably due to the fact that bison roam freely and eat grass and not processed grain, as cows do.
He agrees with cable-network mogul Ted Turner that bison make for some of the best hamburgers around. Yet what many people also don't know is that bison wool makes for really great sweaters, scarf and mittens. "Bison wool is 12 times warmer than sheep yarn by weight," noted Miskin.
Made from the "undercoat" or "down" of the buffalo fur, the wool from buffalo can keep a person warm in 20-below degree Winter weather. "Bison wool is more like hair and it is soft but very durable," said Miskin.
Actually, all wool is an organic fiber composed primarily of keratin, a protein found also in hair, fingernails and animal hooves. So, comparisons to hair would be appropriate. Miskin also noted that even the amount of wool-fur that buffalo shed in summer time is still usable and suitable for making knitted materials out of. Of course trying to gather up bits of shed wool from a roaming herd strewn-across thousands of acres is a more daunting task than simply shearing.
He noted that one buffalo or bison yields up to four to six ounces of wool-fiber. A-100-percent-pure bison wool sweater can cost as much as $400 to start and goes up from there; depending upon the size and the type of knitting - such as handmade versus machine knit.
"The Hand-knitting market is really big right now," said Miskin. The Buffalo Wool Company holds shows in Manhattan, Paris and London each year. To make varied styles of sweaters and knitted gear, other natural fibers are blended in. Yet pure buffalo wool and yarn is at a premium.
This past spring the PBS show "This American Land" featured a brief history and outline of the native bison. Production Coordinator, Jeanna Thomas contacted this reporter to say that "the only issue with it is that it cannot be dyed, so browns are the only option when working with bison yarn." That might be true for some buffalo wool sweater manufacturers. But as Miskin noted more options can be reached depending upon how the wool is processed.
The fiber can be “over-dyed” and made into rich jewel tones,reds, blues, purple, maroon, green, and black, or blended with lighter colored fibers and then you can do just about anything.
Like Merino wool, Buffalo wool is strong, durable and washable. Although as Miskin noted, "Merino isn’t washable unless treated with a chemical process." "Buffalo wool does not shrink and can be tossed into the washing machine and dryer," said Miskin. The lanolin contained within wool is what makes all wool have that "funny smell" to it when wet. As Miskin explained, once the wool is washed going through a thorough scouring process, the wool fiber becomes soft and luxurious.
Anthropologist David Ives Bushnell, Jr in his writings notes that dyed wool goes back centuries, in his research, and from journals of settlers and explorers (like the one called, 'Marquette’s Relation') dating back to the 1670's. Bushnell cites, the mention of belts, garters and other articles made from the hair of bears and buffaloes "dyed red, yellow and gray" were the only "rarities that they (the native tribes) possessed." Bushnell's writings are now housed at the Earl Gregg Swem Library at William & Mary College in Virginia.
Some of the reasons why people don't think much of buffalo other than a symbol of the prairie is because of America's long history with cattle and beef. As the PBS documentary series "This American Land" explains in its program entitled "New Rules for Yellowstone Bison, originally airing back in April of 2011.
Bison were abundant and roamed freely across the land. The native tribes relied upon the buffalo for food and clothing. But they also incorporated the buffalo into their expressions of religion and ritual. As the American wilderness faded away with the advancement of industrialization in the 19th and 20th Centuries, bison and the native way of life also faded. European customs won out and the reliance upon beef as a primary food increased. Beef and cattle herding and ranching became part of the American way of life and that remains to this day.
Bison are often at odds with cattle ranchers, especially those that roam freely in Yellowstone National Park. Within the park's confines they are safe. But when they wander just beyond the boarders of Yellowstone they are subject to conflicts with Montana beef and cattle ranchers. The disease, brucellosis has been a concern for decades and cattle ranchers fear bison will infect their herds.
Ironically, beef producers face a much more re-occurring problem with infections and illnesses from E. Coli than brucellosis, according to some buffalo advocates. Cattle raised for mass meat production are fed corn or grain. Cheap grain some researchers point out is the cause of most of the battle with disease among cows and bulls. A cow's digestive system with four stomachs is more suitable for grass.
Still the preference to cows and beef cattle over bison remains strong in the American culture and diet. Even though as Miskin points out, "the rise in popularity of bison, especially in the last couple of years the meat price has skyrocketed."
The debate and conflict according to "This American Land" and others such as the Buffalo Field Campaign can be traced back even further to the days when America's expansion into the frontier clashed with native tribes. Buffalo was at the center of native tribal life, especially in The Great Plains region. A hearty animal buffalo survived harsh winters, able to nibble on grass and shrubs beneath the snow. Whereas, in comparison European varieties of cattle would struggle, starve and freeze in the bitter winters of the Great Plains.
When the railroad began advancing into more territories - bringing more settlers, the once abundant population of bison declined alarmingly. It has been this complex history that has kept bison and their potential to be a valued, primary food and clothing source obscured from the public.
According to the The Buffalo Field Campaign of Montana, native wild buffalo are still in jeopardy of languishing. Conflicts with beef ranchers as "buffalo roam" so to speak, result in neglectful treatment (including being killed according to one report issued by the BFC via press release on May 24 of this year). Buffalo Field Campaign is a wild bison advocacy group working to protect America's last wild populations, such as the Yellowstone herds.
Speaking on behalf of the BFC, media coordinator Stephany Seay said, "Buffalo Field Campaign does not endorse ranching of bison as a face of conservation," As it stands, of the nearly 500,000 buffalo in the U.S., over 95 percent of these are in private hands, raised as livestock.
As Seay explained, "Buffalo Field Campaign reports that wild bison are ecologically extinct throughout their native range, with the last continuously wild populations living in and around Yellowstone National Park and southwest Montana, numbering fewer than 4,000 animals."
Seay also noted that, "these populations are the last to maintain their identity as a wildlife species." From the view point of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a taxpayer funded plan between the federal government and the state of Montana which harms bison at the behest of livestock interests threatens the buffalos existence and evolutionary potential.
Dave Carter of the National Bison Association respects the efforts of the BFC. Yet holds the view that, of 90 percent of the bison in North America today which are under the care of private producers, bison are respected.
"Those producers share a strong commitment to the integrity of the animal, and the importance of recognizing that buffalo should always be buffalo," said Carter. "Even though the animals are in ranch settings, we want to make sure that they never become domesticated livestock," he said.
"In fact," noted Carter, "the natural prey-predator instincts in bison are part of what we consider the 'Bison Advantage'. Bison easily withstand the blizzards that will devastate cattle herds, in large part because they still have the survival instincts that prompt them to walk upwind, and to use their large heads to get to the forage beneath the snow."
Carter also points out that "because of the prey-animal instincts, bison are much more gentle on riparian areas." "This is because they know that watering holes are where the predators like to hang out," he said. And, Carter noted, "unlike the cattle industry, we have not tinkered with the animal to produce calves larger than 'Mother Nature' intended," he said. "That means that our ranchers aren’t up at nights pulling calves," said Carter.
Buffalo Field Campaign does agree that bison, as a wildlife species, were the once and future gift of abundance. Seay, believes "that gift has been shamefully squandered." "Yet wild bison still exist and so there is still hope that true wild bison restoration can take place," said Seay. As the BFC views it, wild bison represent the sovereignty of the land in North America. And, their return will help heal the wounds that livestock production and agriculture have caused.
Carter maintains that "many of our producers are taking additional steps to make sure that they protect the integrity of the species." "For example," he noted, "several private ranchers, including those who are part of the National Bison Association have been part of a working group with conservationists and native American tribal representatives to develop a set of conservation guidelines for commercial bison producers." "Those guidelines are centered upon the principle that we want to protect the genetic integrity and the undomesticated nature of bison under our stewardship," Carter said.
Carter mentioned also that efforts are being made to pass legislation that will officially designate bison as "the national mammal of the United States." "The language in the bill, which was introduced last month by U.S. Senators Michael Enzi (R-WY) and Tim Johnson (D-SD), specifically mentions the importance of private, public and tribal herds," said Carter. The National Bison Association and others played a role in advocating for that legislation.
Miskin assured that the bison, he and his family raise, are well-cared for. "Bison are amazing, we love them and we don't waste anything they provide to us," he said. The Buffalo Wool Company currently supplies bison wool products, yarns, sweaters and such to 450 shops around the world. The Jacques Cartier Clothier of Alberta, Canada among them. Miskin is very pleased and honored to be in the business that his father started as "Buffalo Gold Premium Fibers." To him the buffalo, its history and what it can provide is precious. He hopes the bison will be treasured by many more as they discover the little-known facts about bison (or buffalo).
For more information about sweaters made from bison fur visit the Buffalo Wool Company web site.