Bison grazing with mountains in the background.
MacGregor Campbell / OPB

Superabundant

Superabundant dispatch: The buffalo roam in Oregon’s brome

By Heather Arndt Anderson (OPB)
Jan. 13, 2023 2 p.m.

Bison’s place in the Northwest (and a Korean ssam recipe)

Editor’s note: OPB’s video series “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest. Now we’re taking the same guiding principles to a new platform: Email. We’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem every week. This week she explores how bison shaped the plains of the Northwest.

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When it comes to symbols of America, bison are as iconic as bald eagles. They’re the gleaming mascot of our National Park Service logo and the best thing about Yellowstone (next to the geysers). We don’t often see them as part of the Northwest landscape, but that’s starting to change. Just how far west did bison historically exist? Read on to find out!

Small bites: Set your alarms for strawberry ice cream day!! (Oh, and Stumptown gets a tip o’ the vegan hat and marine gardens get a little help from their friends.)

Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:

Critically important news: Sunday is National Strawberry Ice Cream Day.

Are all of these “National ____ Day” completely arbitrary nonevents at best, or at worst, just some kind of marketing ploy to take our money? Irrelevant. RUN, don’t walk to your nearest ice cream shop and get yourself a bowl of Oregon strawberry ice cream. Mashed.com even ranks Oregon strawberry flavored Tillamook as the #1 grocery store ice cream in the country.

An octopus’s garden gets a little help.

KLCC’s Karen Richards reports that Oregon has taken the first steps in designating six new rocky stretches of coastline as conservation areas, with two other areas fast tracked for conservation, including the Coquille Point marine garden. This is great news for Oregon’s groundfish (and folks who like rockfish tacos, pink shrimp Louie, lingcod fish and chips, sole meunière, the list goes on).

Stumptown Coffee gets PETA’s stamp of approval.

This month, Portland-born Stumptown Coffee Roasters received the Compassionate Coffee Chain Award from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for serving vegan oat milk as the default in every milk-based beverage. Stumptown announced the switch to plant-based milk in a press release last week, citing among its reasons a reduced climate impact, consumer demand, and most importantly, “it’s delicious.”

A painting of a prairie.

Image generated by Stable Diffusion AI using prompt: "prairie, grassland, Oregon, by Henri Rousseau"

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

Buffalo are at home in the Beaver State, too

We often think of bison as being creatures of the Great Plains rather than the Great Northwest, but the buffalo did roam here too. Archaeological evidence, as well as reported sightings from as late as the 1920s, suggest that the animals were once at home in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. A cache of hundreds of bison skulls was discovered from Malheur Lake in the 1930s, and another skull was found as far west as the Crooked River in Deschutes County in the 1920s. But for about a century or so, these majestic animals and American icons were all but extirpated from the West.

Buffalo still roam here, as a matter of fact. Back in 2011 a herd of 50 or so “wild” bison were at large, reportedly terrorizing hikers in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. After The Oregonian reported on the free-ranging herd, some hunters inquired about opening up a hunting season, which brought the herd’s owner, James Smejkal out of the woodwork to claim the un-corralled beasts. (It’s illegal in Oregon to allow bison to run around stray, but Smejkal has a history of disregarding a number of land use regulations across the state over the years.)

It’s not easy to keep bison contained; the lumbering beasts seem to delight in tearing down barbed wire fences. At Stangel Bison Ranch at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains, more than 500 head of bison graze the vestiges of palouse prairie, behind fences that the Stangels repair on a regular basis. It’s a labor of love for the Stangel family; OPB’s Chris Gonzalez recently reported for Oregon Field Guide on how they reintroduced bison to the region more than four decades ago, eventually converting their third-generation ranch from producing grain and beef entirely to raising and processing bison.

Ecology

Though bison and cattle are sometimes considered ecologically analogous because of their similar size and diet (and that they’re both bovids), American bison (Bison bison) evolved with the native grasslands they inhabit, and as a result, they’re better adapted to life in a range of environments — they’re more adept at navigating rough terrain and are less apt to exploit riparian areas and impact wetlands. They’re more likely to graze a variety of grasses and forbs, and compared to cattle, are more mobile across vast landscapes thanks to their large shoulder hump and short hindlegs.

Not only do bison belong on prairies, but prairies need bison, too; they’re a keystone species that helped shape the northern Great Plains ecoregion. Once numbering upwards of 30-60 million strong, the animals created wallows — shallow depressions where they roll around — which filled with seasonal rainfall to form ephemeral wetlands far from the hydrologic inputs of streams and lakes. These are important sites for migratory birds and plants adapted to living in these ecosystems, as well as being critical habitat for amphibians.

So what happened to them?

In the wild, bison don’t have many predators. Wolves have been known to take down calves and elders, but tend to prefer easier prey like deer and elk. Bears and cougars could attack the young and old or sick too, but predation has never been a serious threat to bison populations — not like humans are.

It wasn’t until the horse was introduced to Native people (by Spaniards in around the 17th century) that humans posed much risk to bison; however, once horses could be used to run bison off buffalo jumps, bison could be killed en masse without even using a weapon. Anthropologist (and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde) David Lewis notes in Quartux Journal that Native people in the West were efficient at killing bison and could take down 1,000 a day without using firearms. Tribes of the Great Basin — the Nez Perce, Paiute, Palouse and Cayuse — as well as Umatilla people in the Columbia Plateau “became some of the best horsemen of all time,” writes Lewis.

A much bigger impact on bison populations in the West came from the advancement of railroads. Not only did large herds pose a hazard to the trains themselves — to westward expansion itself — but the Plains people who relied on bison as a food source were also seen as an impediment to Manifest Destiny. In their endeavor to conquer the West and kill two birds with one stone, whites slaughtered millions of buffalo. Diseases that affect cattle have also likely played a role in declining numbers. By the 1880s, there were only 500 American bison remaining.

A photograph of a giant pile of bison skulls.

Photograph 1892 of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Burton Historical Collection / OPB

Though bison are no longer threatened with extinction, ongoing conservation efforts are crucial to maintaining wild herds. Today, 19 herds comprising 11,000 bison are under management by the US Department of the Interior. Supporting these wild populations ensures genetic diversity not just for the buffalo who roam free, but helps prevent inbreeding in the ones the Stangels raise for us to eat. Maybe one day wild bison will once again roam Oregon.

Recipe: Bison Ssam with Blackberry Ssamjang

Bison ssam on a cutting board with dishes of accoutrements and rice.

Finally, a great use for all of those little dishes in the cupboard.

Heather Arndt Anderson / OPB

This classic Korean dish gets a splash of the Northwest with local bison instead of the traditional beef or pork, and blackberry ssamjang, an Oregonized interpretation of the salty-earthy, savory-sweet dipping sauce. (Try the sauce on burgers and grilled tofu, too — it goes with everything.) Stangel Bison Ranch sells their products at various farmers markets and retail outlets around the state as well as offering their meat en carcasse (a great way to buy meat if you have a chest freezer and/or folks with which to split half a bison). Nowadays, though, you can find bison at most grocery stores. Serves 6-8.

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(Heather Arndt Anderson’s recipe originally appeared on the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission website in 2019.)

Ingredients:

Blackberry Ssamjang

1 cup frozen Oregon blackberries

1 tbsp white onion, grated or finely minced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

3 tbsp honey

1 tbsp sesame oil

1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated or finely minced

2 tbsp chile flake (preferably Korean)

⅓ cup doenjang*


Ssam

2 lb bison flank steak

2 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp honey


For serving

1 cup frozen Oregon blackberries

1 tbsp white onion, grated or finely minced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

3 tbsp honey

1 tbsp sesame oil

1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated or finely minced

2 tbsp chile flake (preferably Korean)

⅓ cup doenjang*

Assorted banchan (pictured here are roasted sweet potato, sautéed chiles, julienned radish and carrot, and various other kimchi; these side dishes are available at Korean markets)

*Doenjang is a Korean fermented soybean paste similar to miso but more salty and pungent. One of the mother sauces of Korean cuisine, it’s available in small tubs in Asian grocery stores, and lasts forever. In a pinch you can substitute miso.

Instructions:

  1. In a small pot over medium-low heat, combine all ssamjang ingredients together except for the doenjang.
  2. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, until the blackberries have broken down completely. Stir in the doenjang and remove from heat. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
  3. Combine the steak with rice vinegar, soy sauce, honey, and ½ cup of the ssamjang. Massage the sauce into the meat and marinate for at least an hour (up to overnight, but pull the meat and marinade out of the fridge for an hour before cooking).
  4. Grill the steak over high heat (preferably fire) for 4-5 minutes per side, or until an instant-read thermometer reads 135-140°F for medium-rare (the best temp for flank steak) or 145-150°F for medium. This cut will become tough if cooked past medium!
  5. Allow the steak to rest at room temperature, draped loosely with foil, for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the tray of lettuce and sides for serving.
  6. Thinly slice the steak across the grain and serve with the lettuce, rice, kimchi, cucumbers, and Oregon blackberry ssamjang.
  7. To eat, take a lettuce leaf and spoon on a little rice and kimchi, layer on sliced steak, and then spoon on the ssamjang. You should be able to eat each wrap in a bite or two. Enjoy!

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