The buffalo soon may be home on the range again.

The kitchen range, that is.

Harry Lee dines on buffalo four times a week. "Roast is my favorite," said the Brandywine resident, who is part of a novel study by George Washington University Medical Center researchers of the cholesterol-lowering effects of buffalo meat.

The wild animal that was pushed to the brink of extinction during the opening of the American West is now ballyhooed by some nutritionists as a preferred food for meat-loving Americans because it is lower in cholesterol and fat and higher in vitamins and protein than beef.

What's more, the buffalo that Lee has been devouring didn't roam on a home far from the nation's capital -- it came from Chantilly, where Wray Dawson raises a herd of 64 buffalo on his 225-acre Thistlewood ranch.

Dawson is among at least 14 persons who raise buffalo -- as the American bison is popularly called -- just a short drive from Washington. They do it partly for profit and partly for the love of the shaggy beast.

"It's part of the American heritage and . . . I'm trying to preserve some of that," said Paul Hines, who with his wife Emily has eight of what he calls "these majestic animals" on their 60-acre farm in Harford County, Md. Every Sunday they have open house for visitors -- "mostly schoolchildren bringing their parents," said Hines, a Nebraska native.

Buffalo "does have a certain amount of charisma," said Dawson, who got the first of his herd from the late Arthur Godfrey's farm near Leesburg.

The men say buffalo are less expensive to raise than grain-fed beef because buffalo eat grass, grazing year-round.

And they are less trouble than cattle because they are more self-sufficent. "A buffalo will break ice on the pond to get water; a cow's too stupid to do that," said Hines.

Today there are about 60,000 buffalo on private farms, according to Judi Hebbring, executive director of the 1,000-member National Buffalo Association in Fort Pierre, S.D., an organization of buffalo producers. Hebbring estimates that there are 15,000 more buffalo in federal refuges and parks.

Diane B. Stoy of the George Washington Medical Center said the U.S. Agriculture Department has documented that buffalo meat is lower in fat content than beef, chicken or such fish as tuna and cod. In addition, buffalo has 25 percent fewer calories than beef, she said.

There had been no controlled experiments to see what would happen to cholesterol levels in persons on a buffalo diet, however, so she designed the pilot study of which Lee is a part. Drawing on a group of 15 men who were already on a low-cholesterol diet, she put them on a regimen of seven ounces of buffalo meat four times a week.

Stoy will present the results of her study during the National Buffalo Association's annual conference in Fort Pierre next week.

The NBA's Hebbring said her membership has been aware of the nutritional aspects of buffalo for more than a decade, but past promotional efforts to turn this symbol of the West into a common dinner entree did not catch on until recently.

"Part of it is heritage," she said. "The trend is back to American cuisine, and what is more American than buffalo?" In addition, "people didn't care what they put in their body 10 years ago; now they do. Buffalo meat is 'in.' "

She cites a third factor: "the bad press beef has been getting."

Next to beef, buffalo meat is a small market. Only 10,000 head of buffalo are slaughtered annually, a minute number next to the 60,000 head of cattle that are butchered daily.

Buffalo producers are not aiming for the masses. "We're zeroing in on the gourmet market," said Hebbring, whose organization will have a major push during its "National Buffalo Week" in mid-October.

Hines and Dawson say they have no problem selling their product, which goes for prices slightly higher than beef. "I have people waiting in line for the meat," said Hines. Already more than a dozen hotels and restaurants in Washington serve buffalo on their menus, and it is a fast-moving item at many up-scale specialty shops.

"We push it; we have it right next to the beef," said John Rusnak, advertising director for Sutton Place Gourmet on New Mexico Ave. NW, which sells fresh buffalo meat from West Virginia. Rusnak said his store provides cooking instructions, because buffalo meat, with its lower fat content, should be cooked at lower temperatures and for less time than beef.

When it's cooked properly, said Hebbring with partisan pride, "it tastes like beef wished it would."

Lee agrees. "It's real tender," he said, adding that since he began his buffalo diet, he has lost weight and lowered his cholesterol level. "I feel like I'm 23," said Lee, who is 63.

But it took some time to persuade his friends. "They said, 'Hey, buffalo is extinct, you can't eat that!' " Lee said. But one day he brown-bagged some buffalo sandwiches to his part-time job.

"I cut them up into tiny pieces and they all ate it, just so they could say they ate buffalo."