The American Bison
) is a North
, also commonly known as the American
. "Buffalo" is somewhat of a misnomer
for this animal, as it is only distantly
related to either of the two "true buffaloes", the Asian Water Buffalo
and the African Buffalo
. However, "bison
" is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal, while
"buffalo" originated with the French fur trappers who called these
massive beasts boeufs
, meaning ox or bullock – so both
names, "bison" and "buffalo," have a similar meaning. In reference
to this animal, the term "buffalo," which dates to 1635, has a much
longer history than the term "bison," which was first recorded in
1774. The American Bison is more closely related to the Wisent
or European Bison.
bison once inhabited the grasslands of
North America in massive herds; their range
roughly formed a triangle between the Great Bear Lake in Canada's far
northwest, south to the Mexican states of Durango and Nuevo León, and east along the western boundary of the
The two subspecies include the Plains Bison
(Bison bison bison
smaller in size and with a more rounded hump, and the Wood Bison
(Bison bison athabascae
which is the larger of the two and with a taller, square hump. Wood
Bison is one of the largest species of cattle in the world,
surpassed only by the Asian gaur
and Wild Asian Water Buffalo
. It is the
largest extant land animal in North
A bison has a shaggy, long, dark brown winter coat, and a lighter
weight, lighter brown summer coat. Bison can reach up to tall,
long, and weigh . As typical in ungulates, the male bison is
slightly larger. The biggest specimens on record have weighed as
much as . The heads and forequarters are massive, and both sexes
have short, curved horns, which they use in fighting for status
within the herd and for defense.
Bison are herbivore
, grazing on the
the North American prairies
. They eat in the
morning and evening, and rest during the day. Bison mate in August
and September; gestation is 285 days. A single reddish-brown calf
is born the following spring, and it nurses for a year. Bison are
mature at three years of age, and have a life expectancy of
approximately 15 years in the wild and up to 25 years in
Juveniles are lighter in color than mature bison for the first
three months of life. One very rare condition is the white buffalo
, where the calf turns entirely
white. White bison are considered sacred by many Native
Differences from European bison
Although superficially similar, there are a number of physical and
behavioural differences between the American and European bison
. The American species has 15
ribs, while the European bison has 14. The American bison has four
lumbar vertebrae, while the European has five. Adult American bison
are not as rangy in build, and have shorter legs. American bison
tend to graze
more, and browse
less than their European
cousins, due to their necks being set differently. Compared to the
American bison, the nose of the European species is set further
forward than the forehead when the neck is in a neutral position.
The body of the American bison is hairier, though its tail has less
hair than that of the European bison. The horns of the European
bison point forward through the plane of their faces, making them
more adept at fighting through the interlocking of horns in the
same manner as domestic cattle, unlike the American bison which
favours charging. American bison are more easily tamed than their
European cousins, and breed with domestic cattle more
Reproductive habits and sexual behavior
Bison are polygamous
. Dominant bulls
maintain a small harem of females for mating. Individual bulls
"tend" females until allowed to mate, by following them around and
chasing away rival males.
—including courtship and mounting between bulls—is
common among bison. The Mandan
festival concludes with a ceremonial enactment of this behavior, to
"ensure the return of the buffalo in the coming season."
Inter-sexual bison also occur. The Lakota
refer to them as pte
meaning bison and winkte
—thereby drawing an
explicit parallel between transgenderism
in animals and people.
A bison wallow is a shallow depression in the soil, which was used
either wet or dry. Bison roll in these depressions, covering
themselves with dust or mud. Past explanations and current
hypotheses suggested for wallowing behavior include grooming
behavior associated with shedding, male-male interaction (typically
rutting behavior), social behavior for group cohesion, play
behavior, relief from skin irritation due to biting insects,
reduction of ectoparasite (tick and lice) load, and
In some areas, wolves
are a major predator
of bison. Wolf predation typically peaks in late spring and early
summer, with attacks usually being concentrated on cows and calves.
Observations have shown that wolves actively target herds with
calves over ones without. Bison display five apparent defense
strategies in protecting calves from wolves. These include running
to a cow, running to a herd, running to the nearest bull, run in
the front or center of a stampeding herd, and to enter water bodies
such as lakes or rivers. When fleeing wolves in open areas, cows
with young calves take the lead, while bulls take to the rear of
the herds, to guard the cows' escape. The length of a bison hunt
varies, ranging from lasting a few minutes to 11 hours. Bison
typically ignore wolves not displaying hunting behavior. Packs
specialising in bison tend to have a greater number of males, as
their superior size to the females allows them to wrestle bison to
the ground more effectively. The Grizzly
can also pose a threat to calves and sometimes adult
Canada, the United States and Mexico list bison nationally as both
wildlife and domestic livestock. Legal status varies among State
and Provincial jurisdictions. In Canada, four provinces and two
territories list bison as both wildlife and livestock. Bison are
listed by 20 states in the United Sates; 10 states list bison as
wildlife and all 20 list them as livestock.
American bison is a relative newcomer to North America, having
originated in Eurasia and migrated over the Bering Strait.
About 10,000 years ago it replaced the
steppe bison (Bison priscus
a previous immigrant that was much larger. It is thought that the
long-horned bison became extinct due to a changing ecosystem and
hunting pressure following the development of the Clovis point
and related technology, and
improved hunting skills. During this same period, other megafauna
vanished and were replaced to some
degree by immigrant Eurasian animals that were better adapted to
predatory humans. The American bison, technically a dwarf form, was
one of these animals.
a keystone species, whose grazing
pressure was a force that shaped the ecology of the Great Plains as strongly as periodic prairie
fire and which were central to the lifestyle of Native Americans of the Great Plains.
However, there is now some controversy over their interaction.
"Hernando De Soto's
staggered through the Southeast for four years in the early 16th
century and saw hordes of people but apparently did not see a
single bison," Charles C. Mann wrote in 1491: New
Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
discussed the evidence that Native Americans not only created (by
selective use of fire) the large grasslands that provided the
bison's ideal habitat but also kept the bison population regulated.
In this theory, it was only when the original human population was
devastated by wave after wave of epidemic (from diseases of
Europeans) after the 16th century that the bison herds propagated
wildly. In such a view, the seas of bison herds that stretched to
the horizon were a symptom of an ecology out of balance, only
rendered possible by decades of heavier-than-average rainfall.
Other evidence of the arrival circa 1550–1600 in the savannas of the eastern
includes the lack of places which southeast natives
named after buffalo. Bison were the most numerous single species of
large wild mammal on Earth.
What is not disputed is that before the introduction of horses
, bison were herded into large chutes made of
rocks and willow branches and then stampeded over cliffs.
Buffalo jumps are found in several
places in the U.S. and Canada, such as Head-Smashed-In
Large groups of people would herd the bison
for several miles, forcing them into a stampede
that would ultimately drive many animals
over a cliff. The large quantities of meat obtained in this way
provided the hunters with surplus, which was used in trade.A
similar method of hunting was to drive the bison into natural
corrals, such as the Ruby site
To get the
optimum use out of the bison, the Native Americans had a specific
method of butchery, first identified at the Olsen-Chubbock
archaeological site in Colorado.
The method involves skinning down the back
in order to get at the tender meat just beneath the surface, the
area known as the "hatched area." After the removal of the hatched
area, the front legs are cut off as well as the shoulder blades.
Doing so exposes the hump meat (in the Wood Bison), as well as the
meat of the ribs and the Bison's inner organs. After everything was
exposed, the spine was then severed and the pelvis and hind legs
removed. Finally, the neck and head were removed as one. This
allowed for the tough meat to be dried and made into pemmican
Later when Plains Indians obtained horses, it was found that a good
horseman could easily lance or shoot enough bison to keep his tribe
and family fed, as long as a herd was nearby. The bison provided
meat, leather, sinew for bows, grease, dried dung for fires, and
even the hooves could be boiled for glue. When times were bad,
bison were consumed down to the last bit of marrow
19th century bison hunts
Bison were hunted almost to extinction
the 19th century and were reduced to a few hundred by the
mid-1880s. They were hunted for their skins, with the rest of the
animal left behind to decay on the ground. After the animals
rotted, their bones were collected and shipped back east in large
The US Army sanctioned and actively endorsed the wholesale
slaughter of bison herds. The federal government promoted bison
hunting for various reasons, to allow ranchers to range their
cattle without competition from other bovines, and primarily to
weaken the North American Indian population by removing their main
food source and to pressure them onto the reservations. Without the
bison, native people of the plains were forced to leave the land or
starve to death.
According to historian Pekka Hämäläinen, Native Americans also
contributed to the collapse of the bison. By the 1830s the Comanche
and their allies on the southern plains
were killing about 280,000 bison a year, which was near the limit
of sustainability for that region. Firearms and horses, along with
a growing export market for buffalo robes and bison meat had
resulted in larger and larger numbers of bison killed each year. A
long and intense drought hit the southern plains in 1845, lasting
into the 1860s, which caused a widespread collapse of the bison
herds. In the 1860s, the rains returned and the bison herds
recovered to a degree.
The railroad industry also wanted bison herds culled or eliminated.
Herds of bison on tracks could damage locomotives when the trains
failed to stop in time. Herds often took shelter in the artificial
cuts formed by the grade of the track winding though hills and
mountains in harsh winter conditions. As a result, bison herds
could delay a train for days.
A pile of bison skulls in the
The main reason for the bison's near-demise, much like the actual
demise of the Passenger Pigeon
Bison skins were used for industrial machine belts, clothing such
as robes, and rugs. There was a huge export trade to Europe of
bison hides. Old West bison hunting was very often a big commercial
enterprise, involving organized teams of one or two professional
hunters, backed by a team of skinners, gun cleaners, cartridge
reloaders, cooks, wranglers,
blacksmiths, security guards, teamsters, and numerous horses and
wagons. Men were even employed to recover and recast lead bullets
taken from the carcasses. Many of these professional hunters, such
as Buffalo Bill Cody
, killed over a
hundred animals at a single stand and many thousands in their
career. One professional hunter killed over 20,000 by his own
good hide could bring $3 in Dodge City, Kansas, and a very
good one (the heavy winter coat) could sell for $50 in an era when
a laborer would be lucky to make a dollar a day.
The hunter would customarily locate the herd in the early morning,
and station himself about from it, shooting the animals broadside
through the lungs. Head shots were not preferred as the soft lead
bullets would often flatten and fail to penetrate the skull,
especially if mud was matted on the head of the animal. The bison
would drop until either the herd sensed danger and stampeded or
perhaps a wounded animal attacked another, causing the herd to
disperse. If done properly a large number of bison would be felled
at one time. Following up were the skinners, who would drive a
spike through the nose of each dead animal with a sledgehammer
, hook up a horse team, and pull
the hide from the carcass. The hides were dressed, prepared, and
stacked on the wagons by other members of the organization.
A bull bison, illustrated in The
Extermination of the American Bison
Used on the obverse of the 1901 American Bison $10 bill.
For a decade from 1873 on there were several hundred, perhaps over
a thousand, such commercial hide hunting outfits harvesting bison
at any one time, vastly exceeding the take by American Indians or
individual meat hunters. The commercial take arguably was anywhere
from 2,000 to 100,000 animals per day depending on the season,
though there are no statistics available. It was said that the
were fired so much that
hunters needed at least two rifles to let the barrels cool off; The
Fireside Book of Guns reports they were sometimes quenched in the
winter snow. Dodge City saw railroad cars sent East filled with
The building of the railroads through Colorado and Kansas split the
bison herd in two parts, the southern herd and the northern herd.
The last refuge of the southern herd was in the Texas
As the great herds began to wane, proposals to protect the bison
were discussed. Cody, among others, spoke in favor of protecting
the bison because he saw that the pressure on the species
was too great. Yet these proposals were
discouraged since it was recognized that the Plains Indians, often
at war with the United States, depended on bison for their way of
life. In 1874, President Ulysses S.
" a Federal bill to protect the
dwindling bison herds, and in 1875 General Philip Sheridan
pleaded to a joint session
to slaughter the
herds, to deprive the Indians of their source of food. By 1884, the
American Bison was close to extinction.
A group of bison at a watering hole.
The famous herd of James "Scotty" Philip
South Dakota was one of the earliest reintroductions of bison to
North America. In 1899, Phillip purchased a small herd of 74 bison
from Dug Carlin, Pete Dupree's brother-in-law. Dupree's son Fred
had roped 5 calves in the Last Big Buffalo Hunt on the Grand River
in 1881 and taken
them back home to the ranch on the Cheyenne River
. By 1889, these 5 rescued
buffalo calves had grown to a herd of 74 head. Philip's goal was to
preserve the animal from extinction. At the time of his death in
1911 at 53, Philip's herd had grown to an estimated 1,000 to 1,200
head of bison. A variety of privately owned herds had also been
established, starting from this population.
Simultaneously, two Montana ranchers, Michel Pablo and Charles
Allard, spent more than 20 years assembling one of the largest
collections of purebred bison on the continent (by the time of
Allard's death in 1896, the herd numbered 300). In 1907, after U.S.
authorities declined to buy the herd, Pablo struck a deal with the
Canadian government and shipped most of his bison northward to the
newly created Elk Island National Park.
isolated bison herd on Utah's Antelope Island has also been used to improve the genetic diversity
of American Bison.
The current American Bison population has
been growing rapidly and is estimated at 350,000, compared to an
estimated 60 to 100 million in the mid-19th century. Most current
herds, however are genetically
or partly crossbred with cattle. Today there are only
four genetically unmixed herds and only one that is also free of
brucellosis: it roams Wind Cave
National Park. A founder population of 16 animals from the
Wind Cave herd was established in Montana in 2005 by the American Prairie Foundation.
now numbers near 100 and roams a 14,000-acre grassland expanse on
American Prairie Reserve.
continuously wild bison herd in the United States resides within
Numbering between 3,000 and 3,500, this
herd is descended from a remnant population of 23 individual
mountain bison that survived the mass slaughter of the 1800s by
hiding out in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone Park. In 1902, a
captive herd of 21 Plains bison were introduced to the Lamar Valley
and managed as livestock until the 1960s, when a policy of natural
regulation was adopted by the park.
The end of the ranching era and the onset of the natural regulation
era set into motion a chain of events that have led to the bison of
Yellowstone Park migrating to lower elevations outside the park in
search of winter forage. The presence of wild bison in Montana is
perceived as a threat to many cattle ranchers, who fear that the
small percentage of bison that carry brucellosis will infect
livestock and cause cows to abort their first calves. However,
there has never been a documented case of brucellosis being
transmitted to cattle from wild bison. The management controversy
that began in the early 1980s continues to this day, with advocacy
groups arguing that the Yellowstone herd should be protected as a
distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act
Bison hunting today
Adolescent Bison in Yellowstone
Hunting of wild bison is legal in some states and provinces where
public herds require culling to maintain a target population
. In Alberta, where one of only two continuously wild herds of
bison exist in North America at Wood Buffalo
National Park, bison are hunted to protect disease-free public
(reintroduced) and private herds of bison.
In Montana, a public hunt was reestablished in 2005, with 50
permits being issued. The Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks
Commission increased the number of tags to 140 for the 2006/2007
season. Advocacy groups claim that it is premature to reestablish
the hunt, given the bison's lack of habitat and wildlife status in
Bison were also reintroduced to Alaska in 1928, and both domestic
and wild herds subsist in a few parts of the state. The state
grants limited permits to hunt wild bison each year.
The bison is one of the few North American large game animals that
can be hunted year round, though it is best to hunt it at certain
times of the year to achieve desired appearances of the coat.
The first thoroughfares of North America, save for the
time-obliterated paths of mastodon
and the routes of the Mound Builder
, were the traces made
by bison and deer
in seasonal migration and
between feeding grounds and salt licks
Many of these routes, hammered by countless hoofs instinctively
following watersheds and the crests of ridges in avoidance of lower
places' summer muck and winter snowdrifts, were followed by the
Indians as courses to hunting grounds and as warriors' paths. They
were invaluable to explorers and were adopted by pioneers
Bison traces were characteristically north and south, but several
key east-west trails were used later as railways. Some of these include
Gap, from the Potomac
River through the Allegheny
divide to the Ohio River headwaters, and
through the Blue Ridge
Mountains to upper Kentucky. A heavily used trace crossed the Ohio River at the Falls of
the Ohio and ran west, crossing the Wabash River near Vincennes, Indiana.
In Senator Thomas Hart Benton
saluting these sagacious path-makers, the bison paved the way for
the railroads to the Pacific.
There are approximately 500,000 bison in captive commercial
populations (mostly plains bison) on about 4,000 privately owned
ranches.Under the IUCN Red List Guidelines, commercial herds are
not eligible for consideration in determining a Red List
designation therefore the total population of bison calculated in
conservation herds to be approximately 30,000 individuals and the
mature population to be approximately 20,000 individuals. Of the
total number presented only 15,000 total individuals are considered
wild bison in the natural range within North America (free-ranging,
not confined primarily by fencing).
Bison are now raised for meat and hides. Over 250,000 of the
350,000 remaining bison are being raised for human consumption.
Bison meat is lower in fat
than beef, which has led to the
development of beefalo
, a fertile
cross-breed of bison and domestic cattle. In 2005, about 35,000
bison were processed for meat in the U.S., with the National Bison
Association and USDA providing a "Certified American Buffalo" program
with birth-to-consumer tracking of bison via RFID ear tags.
is even a market for kosher
these bison are slaughtered at one of the few kosher mammal
slaughterhouses in the U.S., and the meat is then distributed
Bison are found in both publicly and privately held herds.
Park in South
Dakota is home to 1,500 bison, one of the largest publicly
held herds in the world. Wildlife officials believe that free roaming
and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America can be
found only in Yellowstone National Park, Henry Mountains in
Utah, Wind Cave National Park in South
Dakota, and on Elk Island in Alberta, Canada.
Recent genetic studies of privately owned herds of bison show that
many of them include animals with genes from domestic cattle.
example, the herd on Santa Catalina Island, isolated since 1924 after being brought there for
a movie shoot, were found to be mostly crossbreeds.
estimated that there are as few as 12,000 to 15,000 pure bison in
the world. The numbers are uncertain because the tests so far used
thus would miss cattle genes inherited in the male line. Most
hybrids look exactly like purebred bison.
A proposal known as Buffalo Commons
has been suggested by a handful of academics and policymakers to
restore large parts of the drier portion of the Great Plains to
grazed by bison. Proponents
argue that current agricultural use of the shortgrass prairie
is not sustainable
, pointing to periodic disasters
including the Dust Bowl
significant human population loss over the last 60 years. However,
this plan is opposed by most who live in the areas in
Bison as a symbol
The American bison is often used in north America in official
seals, flags, and logos. In the United States, the American Bison
is a popular symbol in the Great Plains states. Kansas, Oklahoma,
and Wyoming have adopted the animal as their official state mammal
, and many sports
teams have chosen the bison as their mascot. In Canada, the bison
is the official animal of the province of Manitoba and appears on the Manitoba flag.
also used in the official coat of arms of the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police.
Several American coins feature the bison, perhaps most famously on
the reverse side of the "buffalo
" from 1913 to 1938. In 2005, the United States Mint
coined a nickel with a
new depiction of the bison as part of its "Westward Journey"
series. The Kansas and North Dakota state quarters, part of the
"50 State Quarter
" series, each
feature bison. The Kansas state quarter only has the bison and does
not feature any writing, while the North Dakota state quarter has
Other institutions which have adopted the bison as a symbol or
Bison are among the most dangerous animals encountered by visitors
to the various U.S. and Canadian National Parks, especially
Yellowstone National Park. Although they are not carnivorous
, they will attack humans if provoked.
They appear slow because of their lethargic movements, but they can
easily outrun humans – they have been observed running as fast as .
Between 1978 and 1992, nearly five times as many people in
Yellowstone National Park were killed or injured by bison as by
bears (12 by bears, 56 by bison). Bison are also more agile than
one might expect, given the animal's size and body structure.
In 2009, a bison named Gracie escaped from a local farm and ran
through the streets of St. Joseph, Mich. Police shot the animal
after it ran into a house and a vehicle.
- Fagan, Brian. Ancient North America. 2005. Thames and
- Koller, Larry. Fireside Book of Guns. 1959 Simon and