By ERIN SNELGROVE

Yakima Herald-Republic via Associated Press

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) -- Not a day goes by when Jim Hanson doesn't receive emails and phone calls from people requesting bison meat. Unfortunately, the Cle Elum rancher has none to sell.

"I have more customers than I can supply. It's an everyday thing," said Hanson, who has raised bison for 21 years at Swauk Prairie Bison. "There will be a real shortage of meat for a while."

The meat -- long touted for its health benefits -- has gained a growing and loyal following in recent years, so much so that national demand has outstripped supply.

Although producers are trying to increase their herds, they said doing so requires keeping their heifers from slaughter. More meat will become available in coming years, but for now, they said there's little they can do.

"Any bit of (increased) interest will overwhelm the supply," Hanson said, noting that he's selling out of meat as soon as it's available, which didn't happen until midsummer a few years ago. "It's so subject to fluctuations like that."

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Bison meat is low in fat and cholesterol and devoid of antibodies and hormones, said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association in Westminster, Colo. But because the meat was rumored to be tough and gamey, there wasn't much interest in it until 2000.

"We had to get people to take their first taste of bison," Carter said about his association's marketing efforts. "Then they wanted more."

Bison are raised in all 50 states, including the big island of Hawaii and Long Island, N.Y. Only a handful of bison ranches are found in and around the Yakima Valley.

The benefits of bison, Carter said, are that they take care of themselves, they calve on their own and they're known for surviving even the most severe weather conditions.

"There's nothing more sustainable in our part of the world than an animal that has been here for tens of thousands of years," he said. "There's nothing Mother Nature can throw at them that bison haven't seen."

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But as Nick McCormack can testify, the animals should never be underestimated. Because they're wild and willful, they need a strong, electric fence to keep them in line, he said.

"They have a 2-year-old mind in a 40-year-old body. They like to tear stuff up," said McCormack, the ranch manager for Badger Pocket Bison Ranch near Ellensburg. "They're comfortable with me. I'm comfortable with them. But at the same time, you can never trust them."

McCormack looks after 11 cows, 11 calves and two breeding bulls for the ranch's owners, Ron and Vickie Barela. Although he wants to increase the herd to 70, he said the process takes a while. Heifers don't deliver their first calf until age 3 -- a year later than beef cattle. On top of that, bringing calves up to weight takes two years, he said.

"The demand is high, the supply is not," said McCormack, adding he won't have more meat to sell until next spring. "Everybody wants it right now."

Hanson, who keeps 30 to 50 bison, has noticed the same trend. His customers have multiplied through word of mouth, and his meat supply has dwindled. He doesn't even advertise anymore.

"I believe the bison industry is on good, firm footing," said Hanson, who slaughters about 20 head a year. "It's accepted in the public eye as a food animal."

Bison are sold at restaurants and supermarkets across the country, including Fred Meyer -- a national retailer with about 130 stores. Spokesperson Melinda Merrill said the retail chain has stocked bison meat since about 2005, selling the ground product year-round and other cuts four or five times a year.

If anything, she said the demand has steadily increased, even as prices have climbed. A couple years ago, ground bison cost about $5 a pound. It now costs $7 to $8 a pound in the retail marketplace.

"We are able to meet the demand, but there is definitely some pressure now," she said.

Despite its growing popularity, Carter said bison will continue to be a niche product. In the United States, he said 120,000 to 125,000 cattle are processed a day, compared to 90,000 bison processed all of last year.

In addition, he said the average person in the United States consumes 65 pounds of beef a year, compared to only one-tenth of a pound of bison.

"We have no intention of being the next beef," he said. "We don't want to be a commodity."

This suits Hanson, who to this day is amazed by bison. To him, the beasts are not only majestic, they are a symbol of the American Old West.

"They're calm, but they're strong," he said. "There is something about buffalo. They are really a noble animal to be around. I've been lucky to work with them."

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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