Jeff Mars' customers at Au Poitin Stil often look at him askance when they hit one particular menu item: the "100% bison" Buffalo Burger. "Usually they just kind of look at you," said Mars, a waiter at the Irish restaurant in Timonium. "It's pretty funny."
But that doesn't stop people from ordering the buffalo burger - and not just urban cowboy types, either. Children to adults, the burger is as popular as most things on the restaurant's menu, Mars said. "It's right in the middle."
The customers at the Stil are on to something: Across the country, bison - once a shaggy step from extinction - are making a comeback. And in Harford County, bison are doing better than they have in decades, as two local farms raise the animals and share their long (and almost curtailed) history with the community.
That history has a personal element for Gary Bloom, who owns Tatanka Farm in Street. Bloom is a descendant of Native Americans, and the connection he feels to the animals goes back to when Bloom's ancestors depended on the bison (also popularly known as buffalo) for survival.
"I've always been fascinated by the animals," he said. Even the name of his farm reflects that tie: "Tatanka" is the Dakota Sioux word for buffalo.
Bloom uses his herd of 12 animals to teach visitors about bison. Groups from school field trips to company picnics come to his 26.5 acres, sometimes even feeding the animals treats such as carrots through the fence that functions more to keep out humans than to keep in bison, which can jump 5 feet from a standing start. He also sells bison meat, including the boxes of frozen bison burger patties he keeps on hand.
Bloom promotes the animals' strengths. His herd grazes most of the year, and he feeds them neither growth hormones nor other chemicals. The bison, which can get up to 6 feet tall and can weigh a ton or more, breed on their own, raise their calves for the first year on their own and generally don't demand much attention. "They're very low-maintenance," he said.
But it is the nutritional advantages of the meat that really make the animals valuable to people, he said. "We were meant to be the healthiest nation on Earth," Bloom said, extolling the meat's properties: low in fat, cholesterol and calories, high in protein and vitamins.
A study from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center published in 1998 backs him up. That research found that bison meat is high in protein, minerals and vitamins relative to the number of calories. In addition, bison meat has lower cholesterol compared to other meats. The study concluded that "bison meat is a highly nutrient-dense food."
Yet while bison meat is getting more popular at restaurants and supermarkets, there was a time when the animal was almost gone entirely, hunted into near-extinction. From about 40 million animals, the numbers of bison plummeted to about 1,000 by the mid- to late 1800s, according to the National Park Service. Many of the animals were killed just for their tongues, considered a delicacy.
But aggressive conservation efforts that began in the 20th century have been paying off, and now there are about 350,000 bison, according to the National Bison Association.
The roller coaster history of the bison is a draw for many ranchers now, said Bill Edwards, president of the Eastern States Bison Cooperative, which includes more than 30 bison farms across 11 states, including Maryland.
"Once you find out about bison and their history and what happened to them, and they were almost slaughtered to extinction, you make a special bond with them," he said. "You kind of get hooked on them."
Paul Hines felt something similar before he decided to raise bison on Cedarvale Farm, in Churchville. His first brush with bison came when, as a child vacationing in South Dakota, he tried some of the meat at Mount Rushmore. "It was the best meat I ever had," Hines said. Years later, when he was in the Army and saw a herd of bison in Alaska, he decided to raise them. "They're just a superior animal."
Now Hines and his wife, Sarah, raise bison on the same farm that her great-grandfather, Joseph Reed Coale, bought in the mid-1800s. Hines gives his bison shots twice a year to control for worms, and moves the herd among three pastures for the same reason, but tends to leave his bison mostly alone.
But the demand for bison meat is coming primarily from people who care about more about the bisons' taste and nutritional benefits than their cyclical past.
And the commercial pull winds up being good for the species, too, said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.
Carter's group has been active in promoting the meat to restaurants and grocery stores, but the bison market is still a small corner of the market. While the beef industry slaughters about 130,000 cattle a day, the bison industry processed only about 24,400 animals last year under federal inspection, Carter said. But his group estimates that as many as 20,000 more bison were processed under state regulations; those animals don't get tracked, so there is no solid tally for them.