COBDEN, Ill. (AP) – Clifton and Kim Howell own more than 250 bison that roam their rolling 800-acre spread, their shapes dotting the landscape and evoking images of the Old West.

But the owners of Bison Bluff Farms hope the shaggy animals known for their lean, protein-rich meat will one day become a lucrative business: Consumers are craving healthier red meat, and the American buffalo is marketed as naturally raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.

“Word’s getting out about bison,” said Jim Matheson of the Colorado-based National Bison Association, whose 1,300 members include ranchers, processors and marketers. There are at least 40 bison ranchers in Illinois and more than 4,000 nationwide.

Matheson credits bison’s increasing popularity in part to a restaurant chain owned by media pioneer Ted Turner. Three years after Turner launched Ted’s Montana Grill, 30 restaurants offering bison have sprung up in 15 states, including Illinois.

According to the Department of Agriculture, 16,225 bison were processed in federally inspected plants during the first half of this year, up from 14,377 slaughtered during the same period last year.

Since 2001 – the first year the USDA tracked bison production – processing of the meat has nearly doubled.

Advocates point to bison’s healthfulness: A serving of buffalo meat has about 2.42 grams of fat, compared with 8.09 grams for select beef or 7.41 grams for skinless chicken, the bison association says.

The popularity of bison meat also may say something about the rebirth of the animal itself.

A few centuries ago, an estimated 70 million of the animals roamed North America, according to the bison association. But unregulated killing of bison in the Old West led to the animal’s numbers being cut to less than 1,000 by the turn of the century.

Legal protection of the bison in Yellowstone Park, the establishment of preserves and ranchers raising bison have helped restore their numbers. The North American herd now numbers 400,000, mostly on private ranches and farms, according to the bison association.

The Howells, who started with just five bison they brought in from Missouri in 1997, hope the herd that roams their southern Illinois farm will soon exceed 300.

They have done no advertising other than word of mouth and they charge area restaurants and drop-by customers by-the-pound prices that range from $3.29 for bison patties to $6.39 for a roast.

Howell, who also runs a construction company, said he is content just getting consumers to try the meat. He hopes to someday mass market his bison at higher prices.

“People are just not educated about bison,” he said. “I’m trying to change that.”

About 60 miles northeast of here near Enfield, Bill and Shirley Renshaw have seen their Cedar Ridge Buffalo Farm blossom 10 bison in 1994 to 136. The couple have their own slaughterhouse, where they expect to process 30 to 40 buffalo this year, Shirley Renshaw said.

The Renshaws’ bison have found a place on the menu at the Buffalo Country Restaurant owned by friends about 20 miles away in Fairfield, said Shirley Renshaw, who also peddles the meat at various fairs and festivals.

Over the past year, Howell estimates he has sold 9,000 pounds of bison meat. The Giant City State Park’s lodge in nearby Makanda, which serves bison burgers, is a big customer.

“It’s doing well. We’re selling quite a few of them,” said Jim Booziotis, assistant manager of the lodge. He said he soon expects to be serving up bison steaks.

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