The American buffalo, that shaggy, thunder-footed beast of the Great Plains that was once near extinction, is moving in on the nation's capital.

Department of Agriculture estimates there are 100 buffalo within a 100-mile radius of Washington. And, according to those who fear the bellicosity of bison, more are on the way.

"The buffalo is becoming the trend of the future," says Ray Dawson, 55, who owns the area's largest herd -- 55 head on 225 acres in western Fairfax County. One area buffalo owner says the bison is "more fun than anything else."

But federal agriculture officials, fearing the dangerous unpredictability of the animals that can weigh up to 2,500 pounds, are leery of "fad" buffalo ownership by those not trained to handle them.

"Buffalo aren't tame. They're temperamental and difficult to manage," said Dickson Hubbard, a Department of Agriculture specialist in animal science who's been asked frequently for buffalo information in recent months.

The editor of "Buffalo!" magazine, Judi Hebberling, says that buffalo "aren't tame and never will be tamed. The only thing predictable about them is their unpredictability. People have been gored to death by 'tame' buffalo."

In Upper Marlboro last year, Bill Bondurant bought two bull buffalo that were allegedly trained to avoid electric fences.

The buffalo, however, were apparently poor students.

"They ran right through the fences. One of them went 15 miles and was at large for two months before I caught him," said Bondurant.

The proponents of the buffalo say the animal's meat has 25 percent more protein than beef, requires 40 percent less food than regular cattle, and has "an excellent taste."

"Buffalo can reproduce for 30 years. You have to give up on cows after only seven years," Dawson said. "They break ice to get to fresh water themselves, and winter doesn't brother them. Unlike cows, they still have their survival instincts. Cows are totally dependent on man."

Other local bison owners praise the buffalo as an American symbol, a piece of history harking back to the years before the mid-1800s when 125 million buffalo populated the American West.

"I was bored sick of regular cows," said Bondurant of Upper Marlboro, who owns 10 buffalo. "People come by and say, "Damn, I thought these things were extinct,' I always thought they are more of a symbol of America than the eagles."

Aside from their symbolic appeal buffalo ranchers say there is money to be made from the beasts. James R. Adams, who owns 10 buffalo in Spotsylvania County about 65 miles south of Washington, says a mature, five-year-old bull can sell for as much as $1,600 with heifers (females) going for slightly less.

Buffalo are also easy to raise because they require none of the inoculations that cows must have and they can find food more easily than cattle, buffalo owners say.

"With the world population growing like it is," says Dawson, the area's biggest buffalo owner, "there will come a time when we can't use the grain that people could be eating to feed our cattle. That's where the buffalo comes in. pThey'll eat darn near everything.

Adams, a buffalo rancher who works full time as the captain of a fire and rescue station in Fairfax County, says he would give up firefighting if he could buy a farm large enough to be economically self-sufficient.

Adams last December bought nine buffalo for about $4,500 from the now defunct Pet-A-Pet farm in Reston.

Dawson, whose herd is in the Chantilly area of Fairfax, brought 18 of his buffalo from the Loudoun County estate of Arthur Godfrey last fall for $800 each. The average cost for a mature buffalo is about $1,000. Dawson said.

This was my break-even year," said Dawson, who began buying in 1974. He said between 20 and 25 calves will be born on his farm next spring, enabling him to sell an equal number of mature buffalo for a total of about $20,000.

But Adams, who playfully scratched the head of "Monroe," his prize 2,400-pound bull, at his Spotsylvania farm, says there's more to buffalo farming than money.

"I just enjoy it so much, and it's excellent for my children. We get very close to the animals, watch the calves being born . . . It's really something," he said.

At the last buffalo census, which was taken four years ago, there were about 60,000 of the animals in the United States. The South Dakata-based National Buffalo Association will conduct another census next year.