By MIKE NORTON
Shaggy, majestic and imposing, the American Bison is an iconic figure that evokes images of the endless Western prairie. So visitors are often surprised to see a huge herd of these massive beasts grazing just outside a northern Michigan beach town like Traverse City.
Equally indifferent to passing traffic and the bison-watchers who gather at the roadside armed with cameras and binoculars, they roam the low green hills - eating, frisking, wallowing in the dust and tossing their woolly horned heads - and causing a lot of motorists to do double-takes.
"People are curious about them and want to know if it's all right for them to be there," says D.J. Oleson of Oleson Food Stores, which raises the bison for their meat and hides. "We tell them it's just fine as long as they don't try to climb over the fence and get in with them."
The bison is the largest mammal in North America. At one time, the bison population was estimated to be well over 60 million, but they were hunted almost to extinction during the 19th century and by 1900 only around 800 remained. Thanks to a careful breeding program by conservationists and ranchers, there are now more than 200,000 bison in the United States - mostly in the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska and Colorado.
Although they're well adapted to cold winters, bison aren't native to northern Michigan. The Traverse City herd, which numbers almost 300 animals, got its start in 1958, when Oleson's grandfather, Jerry, brought three bison to his farm as an experiment. At one time the company owned more than 500 bison -- the largest herd east of the Mississippi - and it's still an impressive sight.
It also proved to be a good investment. Bison meat has less than 26 percent of the fat found in beef, and is low in cholesterol, and the Olesons found a ready market for it in their stores. "Buffalo burgers" donated by the company are also a major feature in one of the community's spring rituals, the annual Northwestern Michigan College barbecue.
The main Oleson herd is pastured on several hundred acres of range land along US 31, where they were moved after their original home was turned into a shopping mall during the 1990s. (The pull of the old pasture must still be strong -three years ago, an escaped bison wandered back to the mall and ended up in the parking lot at Macy's.)
A smaller herd can be found even closer to town on the 120-acre grounds of the Great Wolf Lodge, a family resort and waterpark. In 2003, when the Lodge was built on the site of the bisons' original grazing grounds, the developers thought it would be interesting to keep a few of them around to enhance the resort's "Up North" ambience. In fact, they briefly considered renaming their property the "Great Buffalo Lodge."
In the end, branding consistency won out; Great Wolf concentrated its marketing efforts on the resort's 38,000-square-foot waterpark and other amenities and paid only cursory attention to the big animals grazing out on the lawn. But their guests had other ideas. Most Americans don't get to see bison from such a close vantage point, and fascinated visitors kept mentioning them to the staff, who began to take a fresh look at the herd's potential as a draw.
Eventually the resort created a nature walk next to its property where visitors can get a better look at the animals while learning about the ecology of the nearby watershed and the area called Bison Hollow. And yes, bison burgers are on the menu at Great Wolf's Camp Critter restaurant. (So far, according to the menu, they've sold over 25,000 of them.)