How to Save the Bison By Eating Them

May 4, 2015

What brought the American bison back from the brink of extinction? A billionaire who wanted to eat them. Really.

How to Save the Bison By Eating ThemUp until a few years ago, the largest individual landowner in the U.S. was cable TV magnate (and Atlanta Braves owner) Ted Turner. At one point he owned two million acres in 12 states, including three huge ranches in Montana. Turner, also an environmentalist and conservationist, liked Montana, but realized that the storied West was losing bison. Thousands of the animal once roamed Montana, but by the year 2000, bison had been hunted to the verge of extinction. In fact, four species are entirely extinct; only one American species remained: B. bison, also improperly known as the buffalo. At their lowest numbers, less than 2,000 remained.

Turner had the bizarre idea that if he could get the world to take interest in the bison, he could save the animal. And how could he get the world to take interest in the bison? By showing the world how delicious the cow cousin’s meat tasted, and make some money at the same time.

So, Turner formed a business partnership with George McKerrow, a corporate restaurateur who had founded LongHorn Steakhouse in 1981, which is regarded as the first “casual dining” sit-down restaurant—later places like Olive Garden and Red Lobster are that kind of eatery. Together they formed a restaurant called Ted’s Montana Grill and hired a chef to create a menu with bison burgers, bison steaks, bison ribs, and more. The bison would come from herds raised on his Montana ranches.

The first Ted’s Montana Grill opened in Columbus, Ohio (a demographically diverse area where numerous restaurant companies are headquartered, and where almost all major fast food test marketing occurs) in 2002. The chain now comprises 44 restaurants in 16 states (including Montana). But did it work? Yes. Getting people to want to eat bison created the need to raise bison. It’s estimated that there are 250,000 bison in the U.S. today, primarily raised on rancher land for food…but at least they’re not extinct.

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