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Are bison amenable or non-amenable? How does the definition of bison affect harvest systems and quality of meat and carcasses?

Updated March 24, 2023
Professional portrait of Jeff Martin

Jeff Martin

Assistant Professor and SDSU Extension Bison Specialist

Additional Authors: Amanda Blair
Bison grazing rangeland.
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture


Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers bison (Bison bison) a non-amenable, “exotic” species. This designation has been applied because bison were first considered a native wildlife game species under states’ laws (i.e. public trust doctrine circa 1700s) and most wildlife laws pre-date agricultural laws (see Geer vs. Connecticut, 161 U.S. 519, 1896: 529–530) and (Byrd et al., 2015). However, in 1979, the Supreme Court decision in Hughes vs. Oklahoma (441 U.S. 322, 1979) declared that wildlife were subject to federal regulation under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, because wildlife inherently move between states. State fish and wildlife agencies are still the de facto regulatory authority for setting bag limits and harvest quotas for each region.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote U.S. agriculture. Shortly thereafter, this agency became the regulatory authority for food safety. However, the food safety mission was fundamentally at odds with the original agricultural promotion mission. The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) of 1906 stipulates that products made entirely from wild game product are not “meat” and, therefore, are not amenable to mandatory FSIS inspection (P.L. 113-79, 2014).

Since the early 1990s, various attempts have been made to convert bison to an amenable species — under the purview of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) instead of under the regulatory jurisdiction of wildlife game meat of the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is largely an issue that directly and immediately affects the private sector of the bison management system (BMS), but there would also be indirect effects on three additional sectors of substantial influence for bison management, including: Tribal, non-profit conservation NGOs, and public agencies (Martin et al., 2021). While there may be some considerable benefits to classifying bison as an amenable species (e.g. increased number of commercial facilities approved to receive and slaughter bison), there are also considerable consequences that may outweigh potential benefits. Of primary concern are issues relating to wide selection options for stakeholder harvest systems — mobile field harvest versus conventional stationary abattoir. This is an important point, while ante-mortem inspection is currently voluntary for USDA inspection, it is not mandatory – effectively allowing for culturally significant traditional and ceremonial kills on tribal lands to occur without inspection and allowing for bison hunts to occur without inspection. Changing bison to an amenable species would compel inspection at every harvest type with limited exceptions (Byrd et al., 2015: 352). Moreover, small meat plants (i.e. less than 25 employees) that are either state-only inspected or custom-exempt-only would lose their competitive place in the market (Byrd et al., 2015). While the USDA FSIS allows for field harvest to be inspected (U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, 2021), there are few official exotic animal establishments with proper authorization (9 C.F.R. § 352, 1985: 3) to process bison, therefore, USDA FSIS non-amenable field inspection is difficult to execute for bison.

Mobile harvest impact on quality of meat and carcasses
One major area of concern for consumers with maintaining status quo is the effect of the harvesting system on meat quality, carcass sanitation and consumer preference. Galbraith (2011) reported that mobile, field harvest systems produce bison meat that was lowest in cortisol (i.e. stress hormone), minimized carcass bruising and maintained normal meat pH that ranked highest in scores of tenderness and palatability compared to conventional, stationary abattoir-produced bison meat. More recently, a report by Janssen (2020) corroborated these findings that harvest system influences cortisol levels (lower with mobile units), and some characteristics of meat and carcass quality, however Janssen (2020) reported that, “harvest systems had minimal impact on consumer preference.” Scientific evidence supports that mobile field harvest systems are as good as, or in some measures, better than conventional stationary abattoir facilities concerning animal welfare, meat and carcass quality, and meat acceptability to consumers.

    Background to Bison Management System (BMS)

    Producer monitoring a bison from inside a truck.
    Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture

    The BMS is comprised of four interconnected and interdependent sectors, all acting in concert for the unified goal of restoring bison to their original habitats (Martin et al., 2021). Those four sectors are (1) the private commercial operations/sector with the purpose of restoring bison on private lands, while establishing an economic market for bison meat; (2) Tribal governments and Native producers restoring bison on Tribal lands and providing a sustainable meat source for Native American communities; (3) the non-profit conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) sector, such as The Nature Conservancy and zoos, that restore bison on a mix of trust and deeded lands, and (4) the state and federal public agency sector, including the U.S. Department of Interior agencies of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wildlife Refuges and the U.S. National Park Service on National Parks, in addition to several state wildlife agencies, with mandates to protect and restore bison on public lands.

    Commercially, the bison industry started in the 1960s, but the interconnected relationships of each sector trace their roots to the early 1900s between private conservationists, such as Charles Goodnight, James ‘Scotty’ Philip, C.J. ‘Buffalo’ Jones, as well as public servants, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, William T. Hornaday, to name a few. In parallel, Native producers and Tribal governments have been restoring bison on their lands since the late 1800s, working in concert with several public agencies and innumerous private operations (Shamon et al., 2022). While these sectors have seemingly conflicting interests, this perspective is grounded in a zero-sum mentality at odds with reality of a unified mission to restore bison on lands regardless of land ownership and tenure.

    Definitions, Codes, Rule, and Regulations

    “Exotic” Species
    Currently, under U.S. Codes and Federal Regulations (hereafter, referred to as CFR), bison/North American buffalo (Bison bison) are defined as an “exotic” — or rather, undomesticated — species (21 C.F.R. § 110, 1986). However, bison are technically a native wildlife species to North America, and their status as a “wild game species” (i.e., native wildlife) predetermines their undomesticated status. Therefore, bison are considered “exotic” under the USDA.

    Non-amenable Species
    Meat produced from wild game species, “exotics,” remain under the regulatory jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) (21 C.F.R. § 110, 1986) — including those game species raised in captivity on game farms/ranches.

    Voluntary Inspection
    Exotic species, including bison, are not subject to mandatory meat inspection; though, they are eligible for voluntary inspection under USDA FSIS (9 C.F.R. § 352, 1985). If inspected and passed, products will bear the triangle mark (9 C.F.R. § 317.3, 1970) (Figure 1).

      USDA FSIS meat inspection stamp. For a description of this graphic, please call SDSU Extension at 605-688-4792.
      Figure 1. Example triangle mark of passed voluntary USDA FSIS meat inspection.

      Ante-Mortem Inspection
      Prior to slaughter (i.e. antemortem), inspection is only conducted occasionally for non-amenable and exotic species under the FDA, as shown in the following excert:

      “shall, where and to the extent considered necessary by the Administrator and under such instructions as he may issue from time to time, be made on the day of slaughter of an exotic animal, in one of the following listed ways or as determined by the Administrator. Humane handling of an exotic animal during ante-mortem inspection shall be in accordance with the provisions contained in (9 C.F.R. § 313, 1979: 2). Immediately after the animal is stunned or killed, it shall be shackled, hoisted, stuck and bled” (9 C.F.R. § 352.10, 1985).

      Moreover, for all exotic species being slaughtered under voluntary inspection of the USDA FSIS, animal ante-mortem inspection shall adhere to regulations listed under 9 C.F.R. § 309 (1970) and USDA FSIS Directive 6100.1 (2020).

      Killing and/or Stunning
      The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends euthanasia by gunshot in close proximity under restraint at a stationary abattoir (9 C.F.R. § 309, 1970; 9 C.F.R. § 352, 1985: a; 9 C.F.R. § 313.16, 2022) with a center-fire rifle that has greater than 1,000 feet-pound muzzle energy (e.g. higher caliber center-fire rifles, such as .30-30, .270, .30-06 and similar (AVMA, 2020: 67)). Note: the majority of handguns produce muzzle energy too low, well below 1,000 feet-pound, thus are inappropriate for euthanasia of mature bison (National Farm Animal Care Council, 2017). The preferred target site for gunshot euthanasia is on the forehead, approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm) above an imaginary line connecting the bottom of the horns (Figure 2). The angle of entry should be perpendicular to the skull (AVMA, 2020). However, USDA FSIS allows captive bolt euthanasia (9 C.F.R. § 313.15, 1979), but AVMA recommends against captive bolt (AVMA, 2020).

      For field kills at a distance, AVMA recommends similar high-caliber gunshot muzzle energy to those stated above, but the target may be the frontal head (Figure 2), lateral head behind the ear, or heart shot to the thorax (9 C.F.R. § 352.10a, 1985; AVMA, 2020).

        Diagram showing preferred target site for bison euthanasia.a Target mark is on the forehead of the bison between the bison’s horns and eyes. For a description of this graphic, please call SDSU Extension at 605-688-4792.
        Figure 2. The preferred target site for bison for gunshot euthanasia is on the forehead approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm) above an imaginary line connecting the bottom of the horns. The angle of entry should be perpendicular to the skull (AVMA, 2020).

        Post-Mortem Inspection
        After slaughter, as outlined in the following excerpt:

        “Post-mortem inspection of reindeer, elk, deer, antelope, bison and water buffalo shall be conducted in accordance with the provisions contained in 9 C.F.R. § 310 (1970) or as determined by the Administrator. The post-mortem examination of field ante-mortem-inspected exotic animals must occur in the shortest length of time practicable and on the day that field ante-mortem inspection is performed to minimize the changes in the carcass which can affect the post-mortem examination, disposition and wholesomeness of the carcass and its parts. The post-mortem veterinarian shall inspect and make the disposition of all incoming “U.S. Suspect” tagged exotic animals.” (9 C.F.R. § 352.11, 1985).

        Moreover, for all exotic species being slaughtered under voluntary inspection of the USDA FSIS, post-mortem inspection shall adhere to regulations under USDA FSIS Directive 6100.2 (2016).

        Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) Program
        Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) provides an opportunity for approved state-inspected meat and poultry processors to ship their products across state lines. Under the CIS agreement, States may inspect meat in approved establishments for shipment throughout the United States. The CIS program is limited to establishments located in the 27 states that have an established Meat and Poultry Inspection (MPI) program. To be eligible to participate in the CIS program, state MPI programs must meet a number of criteria to demonstrate that the inspection that it provides to state-inspected plants will be the “same as” the inspection that FSIS provides to official federal establishments. For instance, a state must demonstrate that it has the necessary legal authority to administer and enforce requirements that are the same as the FMIA and applicable regulations. In addition, the state must collect regulatory samples at the same frequency and use the same analytical methods at laboratories that meet the same level of accreditation as the FSIS laboratories. The assigned state inspectors may remain as the establishment’s onsite inspectors, provided they have the same training and inspect the plant under the “same as” regulatory standards as their federal counterparts in FSIS-inspected establishments. FSIS provides ongoing oversight of the CIS program to ensure that participating states maintain and operate their “same as” programs in a manner that complies with all applicable federal statutes and regulations and follows FSIS directives and notices. FSIS reimburses the states for 60% of their costs associated with providing this interstate eligible inspection service.

        The CIS program was created by the 2008 Farm Bill, but it was launched in 2012 under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Currently, 9 states (Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin) participate in the program to promote the expansion of business opportunities for state-inspected meat and poultry establishments. Under CIS, selected state-inspected establishments that comply with federal inspection requirements are permitted to ship their product in interstate commerce. For more information, visit the Cooperative Interstate Shipping Program website.

        3% Rule
        Processed products that include both wild game and amenable meat or poultry may be subject to mandatory FSIS inspection. Processed products generally are amenable to mandatory inspection if they contain as little as 3% raw or 2% cooked meat from an amenable animal (e.g. beef, pork, chicken, etc.), together with other safe and suitable ingredients. If produced in accordance with all applicable regulatory requirements, any product subject to mandatory inspection will bear the round USDA mark of inspection (Amann, 2013; Byrd et al., 2015). For example, a meat product containing three percent beef and 97% bison, is subject to mandatory USDA inspection and will carry the mandatory, round inspection mark. Because it has been federally inspected, it can be sold and shipped across the United States, even though it could contain 97% of state-inspected meat (Byrd et al., 2015).


        In conclusion, while status of amenable vs. non-amenable species seems confusing and complex, there are associated benefits and consequences for each definition. Considering that there are multiple pathways for transporting and marketing bison and bison products across state lines, this creates many pathways and avenues for innovative and creative ways for producers to deliver bison and bison products to consumers, especially for small and medium-size bison operations.

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