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The American Bison (Bison bison) is a North American species of bison, also commonly known as the American Buffalo. "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.

These bison once inhabited the grasslands of North America in massive herds; their range roughly formed a triangle between the Great Bear Lakemarker in Canadamarker's far northwest, south to the Mexicanmarker states of Durangomarker and Nuevo Leónmarker, and east along the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountainsmarker. 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 America.

Description



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 grasses and sedge of 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 captivity.

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 Americans.

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 readily.

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.

Homosexual behavior—including courtship and mounting between bulls—is common among bison. The Mandan nation Okipa 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 winktepte meaning bison and winkte designating two-spirit—thereby drawing an explicit parallel between transgenderism in animals and people.

Wallowing behavior

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 thermoregulation.

Predators

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 Bear can also pose a threat to calves and sometimes adult bison.

Legality

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.

Hunting

Native hunting

The American bison is a relative newcomer to North America, having originated in Eurasia and migrated over the Bering Straitmarker. 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.

Bison were a keystone species, whose grazing pressure was a force that shaped the ecology of the Great Plainsmarker 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 expedition 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. Mann 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 seaboard 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. These Buffalo jumps are found in several places in the U.S. and Canada, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jumpmarker. 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 Coloradomarker. 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 in 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 quantities.

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 1870s.
The main reason for the bison's near-demise, much like the actual demise of the Passenger Pigeon, was commercial hunting.

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 count. A good hide could bring $3 in Dodge Citymarker, Kansasmarker, 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 Big .50s 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 stacked hides.

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 panhandle.

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. Grant "pocket vetoed" a Federal bill to protect the dwindling bison herds, and in 1875 General Philip Sheridan pleaded to a joint session of Congress to slaughter the herds, to deprive the Indians of their source of food. By 1884, the American Bison was close to extinction.

Comeback

A group of bison at a watering hole.


The famous herd of James "Scotty" Philip in 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 Parkmarker.

An isolated bison herd on Utah's Antelope Islandmarker 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 polluted 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 Parkmarker. A founder population of 16 animals from the Wind Cave herd was established in Montanamarker in 2005 by the American Prairie Foundation. The herd now numbers near 100 and roams a 14,000-acre grassland expanse on American Prairie Reserve.



The only continuously wild bison herd in the United States resides within Yellowstone National Parkmarker. 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 National Park.


Hunting of wild bison is legal in some states and provinces where public herds require culling to maintain a target population. In Albertamarker, where one of only two continuously wild herds of bison exist in North America at Wood Buffalo National Parkmarker, 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 Montana.

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.

Bison trails

The first thoroughfares of North America, save for the time-obliterated paths of mastodon or muskox 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 the Cumberland Gapmarker, from the Potomac River through the Allegheny divide to the Ohio River headwaters, and through the Blue Ridge Mountains to upper Kentuckymarker. A heavily used trace crossed the Ohio River at the Falls of the Ohio and ran west, crossing the Wabash River near Vincennes, Indianamarker. In Senator Thomas Hart Benton's phrase saluting these sagacious path-makers, the bison paved the way for the railroads to the Pacific.

Population

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 today



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 and cholesterol 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 USDAmarker providing a "Certified American Buffalo" program with birth-to-consumer tracking of bison via RFID ear tags. There is even a market for kosher bison meat; these bison are slaughtered at one of the few kosher mammal slaughterhouses in the U.S., and the meat is then distributed nationwide.



Bison are found in both publicly and privately held herds. Custer State Parkmarker in South Dakotamarker 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 Parkmarker, Henry Mountains in Utahmarker, Wind Cave National Parkmarker in South Dakotamarker, and on Elk Island in Albertamarker, Canadamarker.

Recent genetic studies of privately owned herds of bison show that many of them include animals with genes from domestic cattle. For example, the herd on Santa Catalina Islandmarker, isolated since 1924 after being brought there for a movie shoot, were found to be mostly crossbreeds. It is 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 mitochondrial DNA analysis, and 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 native prairie grazed by bison. Proponents argue that current agricultural use of the shortgrass prairie is not sustainable, pointing to periodic disasters including the Dust Bowl and continuing significant human population loss over the last 60 years. However, this plan is opposed by most who live in the areas in question.

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 Manitobamarker and appears on the Manitoba flag. It is also used in the official coat of arms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Policemarker.

Several American coins feature the bison, perhaps most famously on the reverse side of the "buffalo nickel" 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 two bison.

Other institutions which have adopted the bison as a symbol or mascot include:



Dangers



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.

See also



References

Bibliography

  • Fagan, Brian. Ancient North America. 2005. Thames and Hudson
  • Koller, Larry. Fireside Book of Guns. 1959 Simon and Schuster


External links




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