Buffalo Jump

On a recent visit to the Canadian West, we noticed that buffalo meat was frequently offered on restaurant menus. I was fortunate as we drove across the gentle undulating prairies to see the source of those steaks so strongly recommended in these dining rooms. I had the opportunity to chat with a farmhand seated on a tractor near a herd of buffalo scattered across a large fenced field.

Had I been casting a cowboy movie, this fellow would have been the star. He wore a battered cowboy hat stained with sweat that he used as a flyswatter and handkerchief. The plaid shirt he wore had seen better days, but half-covered by a leather vest, it looked almost too authentic to be true. Slim-legged jeans topped a pair of diamond-patterned cowboy boots. His hands were hard and thick. This guy obviously was used to physical labour, so it came as no surprise that his belt buckle with its longhorn cattle lay flat against a lean stomach. The only thing about this cowboy that didn’t fit the laconic cinematic stereotype was that he talked like an auctioneer.

I had stopped to take photos of the animals. He spotted me and felt, I guess, that I looked like a good listener. Presumably it gets lonely on the plains. “Nasty,” he said of the buffalo. “I never get off the tractor when I am near any buffalo.” “Stupid” was another word he used in their description. The animals always come into this field through the top gate, and even though I must open another gate only 100 feet away to bring hay during this drought, they will never use that gate to escape.

Years ago the Indians knew the buffalo well and understood that these front-heavy animals could be stampeded over a cliff to their death. They would not swerve but pell-mell over the precipice. The government has preserved one of these sites in Alberta that really explains the process. That running instinct is so strong, I have been told, that ranchers who need to inoculate a beast must build a zigzag chute into which the buffalo is chased to be trapped, so that the needles can be given. This crooked gangway slows the beasts. If the chute is straight, the buffalo will run full tilt into the mechanical squeeze at the end of the catch and kill themselves with the impact, so strong is the stampede instinct.

Just recently a rancher from Alberta, for whom I had painted a commission, told me that buffalo meat which was so popular ten years ago is no longer in demand. Five dollars is now the price for a buffalo calf. It would appear that there is fashion even in the cattle business. No wonder restaurants are eager to offer buffalo steaks. Strangely, the restaurant price seemed detached from the market price.