Updated: Oct 14, 2019
The American bison is the national mammal of the United States.
The American bison or simply bison, also commonly known as the American buffalo or simply buffalo, is a North American species of bison that once roamed North America in vast herds. Their historical range, by 9000 BCE, is described as the great bison belt, a tract of rich grassland that ran from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, east to the Atlantic Seaboard (nearly to the Atlantic tidewater in some areas) as far north as New York and south to Georgia and per some sources down to Florida, with sightings in North Carolina near Buffalo Ford on the Catawba River as late as 1750. They became nearly extinct by a combination of commercial hunting and slaughter in the 19th century and introduction of bovine diseases from domestic cattle. With a population in excess of 60 million in the late 18th century, the species was down to 541 animals by 1889. Recovery efforts expanded in the mid-20th century, with a resurgence to roughly 31,000 animals today, largely restricted to a few national parks and reserves.
Two subspecies or ecotypes have been described: the plains bison, smaller in size and with a more rounded hump, and the wood bison —the larger of the two and having a taller, square hump. Furthermore, the plains bison has been suggested to consist of a northern plains and a southern plains subspecies, bringing the total to three. However, this is generally not supported. The wood bison is one of the largest wild species of bovid in the world, surpassed by only the Asian gaur and wild water buffalo. Among extant land animals in North America, the bison is the heaviest; yet second tallest after the moose.
Spanning back many centuries, Native American tribes have had cultural and spiritual connections to the American bison.
The term buffalo is sometimes considered to be a misnomer for this animal, and could be confused with "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 bœufs, meaning ox or bullock—so both names, bison and buffalo, have a similar meaning. The name buffalo is listed in many dictionaries as an acceptable name for American buffalo or bison. Samuel de Champlain applied the term buffalo (buffles in French) to the bison in 1616 (published 1619), after seeing skins and a drawing shown to him by members of the Nipissing First Nation, who said they traveled forty days (from east of Lake Huron) to trade with another nation who hunted the animals. In English usage, the term buffalo dates to 1625 in North America, when the term was first recorded for the American mammal. It thus has a much longer history than the term bison, which was first recorded in 1774. The American bison is very closely related to the European bison (also known as wisent or the European wood bison).
A bison has a shaggy, long, dark-brown winter coat, and a lighter-weight, lighter-brown summer coat. As is typical in ungulates, the male bison is slightly larger than the female and, in some cases, can be considerably heavier. Plains bison are often in the smaller range of sizes, and wood bison in the larger range. Head-rump lengths range from 2 to 2.8 m (6.6 to 9.2 ft) long and the tail adding 30 to 43 cm (12 to 17 in) or up to 65 cm (26 in). Heights at withers (withers is the ridge between the shoulder blades of an animal, typically a quadruped. In many species, it is the tallest point of the body. In horses and dogs, it is the standard place to measure the animal's height. In contrast, cattle are normally measured to the top of the hips) in the species can range from 152 to 186 cm (60 to 73 in) for B. b. bison while B. b. athabascae reaches over 2 m (6.6 ft). Weights can range from 318 to 1,000 kg (701 to 2,205 lb). Typical weight ranges in the species were reported as 460 to 988 kg (1,014 to 2,178 lb) in males and 360 to 544 kg (794 to 1,199 lb) in females, the lowest weights probably representing typical weight around the age of sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age.
Mature bulls tend to be considerably larger than cows. Cow weights have had reported medians of 450 to 495 kg (992 to 1,091 lb), with one small sample averaging 479 kg (1,056 lb), whereas bulls may reportedly weigh a median of 730 kg (1,610 lb) with an average from a small sample of 765 kg (1,687 lb). The heaviest wild bull ever recorded weighed 1,270 kg (2,800 lb)
When raised in captivity and farmed for meat, the bison can grow unnaturally heavy and the largest semidomestic bison weighed 1,724 kg (3,801 lb).
The heads and forequarters are massive, and both sexes have short, curved horns that can grow up to 2 ft (61 cm) long, which they use in fighting for status within the herd and for defense.
Bison are herbivores, grazing on the grasses and sedges of the North American prairies. Their daily schedule involves two-hour periods of grazing, resting, and cud chewing, then moving to a new location to graze again.
Sexually mature young bulls may try to start mating with cows by the age of two or three years, but if more mature bulls are present, they may not be able to compete until they reach five years of age.
For the first two months of life, calves are lighter in color than mature bison.
One very rare condition is the white buffalo, in which the calf turns entirely white.
A white buffalo or white bison is an American bison possessing white fur, and is considered sacred or spiritually significant in several Native American religions; therefore, such buffalo are often visited for prayer and other religious rituals. The coats of buffalo are almost always brown and their skin a dark brown or black; however, white buffalo can result from one of several physical conditions:
They may be albinos, in which case they will remain unpigmented throughout their lives, and may also have hearing and vision problems.They may be leucistic, with white fur but blue eyes, instead of the pink seen in albinos.They may have a rare genetic condition which causes a buffalo to be born white, but to become brown within a year or two as it matures.They may be beefalo, a bison–cattle crossbreed, and thus have inherited the white coloration from their cattle ancestry.
White buffalo are extremely rare; the National Bison Association has estimated that they only occur in approximately one out of every 10 million births.
These are some examples of white buffalo in popular culture.
A white silhouette of a bison is featured in the flag of the state of Wyoming. The bison is the state mammal; it is branded with the Great Seal of Wyoming. White represents purity, uprightness and one of the colors of the United States flag.
A charging white buffalo over crossed swords is used as the logo for the NHL team, the Buffalo Sabres. A white buffalo head was used from 1996 to 2006.
The US National Park Service's Arrowhead Emblem, commonly worn as a patch on the employee's uniform, incorporates a white buffalo.
American hard rock musician Ted Nugent has a tune that he wrote and sings called "Great White Buffalo", alluding both to the creature and to the frequent conflicts between indigenous tribes and spreading pioneers.
The White Buffalo is a 1977 western film starring Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickock, who is hunting a white buffalo that haunts his dreams.
Among Native American tribes, especially the Plain Indians, the bison is considered a sacred animal and religious symbol. According to University of Montana anthropology and Native American studies professor S. Neyooxet Greymorning, "The creation stories of where buffalo came from put them in a very spiritual place among many tribes. The buffalo crossed many different areas and functions, and it was utilized in many ways. It was used in ceremonies, as well as to make tipi covers that provided homes for people, utensils, shields, weapons and parts were used for sewing with the sinew." The Sioux consider the birth of a white buffalo to be the return of White Buffalo Calf Woman, their primary cultural prophet and the bringer of their "Seven Sacred Rites". Among the Mandan and Hidatsa, the White Buffalo Cow Society was the most sacred of societies for women.
Despite being the closest relatives of domestic cattle native to North America, bison were never domesticated by Native Americans. Later attempts of domestication by Europeans prior to the 20th century met with limited success.
Bison were described as having a "wild and ungovernable temper"; they can jump close to 6 ft (1.8 m) vertically, and run 35–40 mph (56–64 km/h) when agitated. This agility and speed, combined with their great size and weight, makes bison herds difficult to confine, as they can easily escape or destroy most fencing systems, including most razor wire. The most successful systems involve large, 20 ft. high fences made from welded steel I beams sunk at least 6 feet or more into concrete. These fencing systems, while expensive, require very little maintenance. Furthermore, making the fence sections overlap so the grassy areas beyond are not visible prevents the buffalo from trying to get to new range.
About 500,000 bison currently exist on private lands and around 30,000 on public lands which includes environmental and government preserves. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, roughly 15,000 bison are considered wild, free-range bison not primarily confined by fencing.
The southern extent of the historic range of the American bison includes northern Mexico and adjoining areas in the United States as documented by archeological records and historical accounts from Mexican archives from AD 700 to the 19th century. The Janos-Hidalgo bison herd has ranged between Chihuahua, Mexico, and New Mexico, United States, since at least the 1920's. The persistence of this herd suggests that habitat for bison is suitable in northern Mexico. In 2009, genetically pure bison were reintroduced to the Janos Biosphere Reserve in northern Chihuahua adding to the Mexican bison population. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has reintroduced bison to over a dozen nature preserves around the United States. In October 2016, TNC established the easternmost bison herd in the county, at Kankakee Sands Nature Preserve in Morocco, Newton County, Indiana. In 2014, U.S Tribes and Canadian First Nations signed a treaty to help with the restoration of bison, the first to be signed in nearly 150 years.
American bison live in river valleys, and on prairies and plains. Typical habitat is open or semiopen grasslands, as well as sagebrush, semiarid lands, and scrublands. Some lightly wooded areas are also known historically to have supported bison. Bison also graze in hilly or mountainous areas where the slopes are not steep. Though not particularly known as high-altitude animals, bison in the Yellowstone National Park bison herd are frequently found at elevations above 8,000 feet and the Henry Mountains bison herd is found on the plains around the Henry Mountains, Utah, as well as in mountain valleys of the Henry Mountains to an altitude of 10,000 feet. The first thoroughfares of North America, except for the time-obliterated paths of mastodon or muskox and the routes of the mound builders, 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 aboriginal North Americans 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 Gap 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's phrase saluting these sagacious path-makers, the bison paved the way for the railroads to the Pacific."
Bison are migratory and herd migrations can be directional as well as altitudinal in some areas. Bison have usual daily movements between foraging sites during the summer. In a montane valley, bison have been recorded traveling, on average, 2 miles (3.2 km) per day. The summer ranges of bison appear to be influenced by seasonal vegetation changes, interspersion and size of foraging sites, the rut, and the number of biting insects. The size of preserve and availability of water may also be a factor. Bison are largely grazers, eating primarily grasses and sedges. On shortgrass pasture, bison predominately consume warm-season grasses. On mixed prairie, cool-season grasses, including some sedges, apparently compose 79–96% of their diet. In montane and northern areas, sedges are selected throughout the year. Bison also drink water or consume snow on a daily basis.
Female bison live in maternal herds which include other females and their offspring. Male offspring leave their maternal herd when around three years old and either live alone or join other males in bachelor herds. Male and female herds usually do not mingle until the breeding season, which can occur from July through September. However, female herds may also contain a few older males. During the breeding season, dominant bulls maintain a small harem of females for mating. Individual bulls "tend" cows until allowed to mate, by following them around and chasing away rival males. The tending bull shields the female's vision with his body so she will not see any other challenging males. A challenging bull may bellow or roar to get a female's attention and the tending bull has to bellow/roar back.The most dominant bulls mate in the first 2–3 weeks of the season. More subordinate bulls mate with any remaining estrous cow that has not mated yet. Male bison play no part in raising the young.
Bison herds have dominance hierarchies that exist for both males and females. A bison's dominance is related to its birth date. Bison born earlier in the breeding season are more likely to be larger and more dominant as adults. Thus, bison are able to pass on their dominance to their offspring as dominant bison breed earlier in the season. In addition to dominance, the older bison of a generation also have a higher fertility rate than the younger ones.
Bison mate in August and September; gestation is 285 days. A single reddish-brown calf nurses until the next calf is born. If the cow is not pregnant, a calf will nurse for 18 months. Cows nurse their calves for at least 7 or 8 months, but most calves seem to be weaned before the end of their first year. At three years of age, bison cows are mature enough to produce a calf.
Bison have a life expectancy around 15 years in the wild and up to 25 years in captivity.
Bison mate in late spring and summer in more open plain areas. During fall and winter, bison tend to gather in more wooded areas. During this time, bison partake in horning behaviors. They rub their horns against trees, young saplings, and even utility poles. Aromatic trees like cedars and pine seem to be preferred. Horning appears to be associated with insect defense, as it occurs most often in the fall when the insect population is at its highest. Cedar and pines emit an aroma after bison horn them and this seems to be used as a deterrent for insects.
A bison wallow is a shallow depression in the soil, which bison use either wet or dry. Bison roll in these depressions, covering themselves with dust or mud. Past and current hypotheses to explain the purpose of wallowing include grooming associated with shedding, male-male interaction (typically rutting), social behavior for group cohesion, play, relief from skin irritation due to biting insects, reduction of ectoparasite (tick and lice) load, and thermoregulation. Bison wallowing has important ecosystem engineering effects and enhances plant and animal diversity on prairies.
While often secure from predation because of their size and strength, in some areas, bison are regularly preyed upon by wolves. Wolf predation typically peaks in late spring and early summer, with attacks usually being concentrated on cows and calves. Wolves more actively target herds with calves than those without. The length of a predation episode varies, ranging from a few minutes to over nine hours.
Bison display five apparent defense strategies in protecting calves from wolves: running to a cow, running to a herd, running to the nearest bull, running in the front or center of a stampeding herd, and entering 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. Bison typically ignore wolves not displaying hunting behavior. Wolf packs specializing in bison tend to have more males, because their larger size than females allows them to wrestle prey to the ground more effectively. Healthy, mature bulls in herds rarely fall prey.
Grizzly bears can also pose a threat to calves and sometimes old, injured, or sick adult bison.
Bison are among the most dangerous animals encountered by visitors to the various North American national parks and will attack humans if provoked. They appear slow because of their lethargic movements, but can easily outrun humans; bison have been observed running as fast as 40 mph (64 km/h).
A raised tail means the bison is either getting ready to poop or it is anxious.
Between 1980 and 1999, more than three times as many people in Yellowstone National Park were injured by bison than by bears. During this period, bison charged and injured 79 people, with injuries ranging from goring puncture wounds and broken bones to bruises and abrasions. Bears injured 24 people during the same time. Three people died from the injuries inflicted—one person by bison in 1983, and two people by bears in 1984 and 1986.
Bison are increasingly raised for meat, hide, wool, and dairy products. The majority of American bison in the world are raised for human consumption or fur clothing. Bison meat is generally considered to taste very similar to beef, but is lower in fat and cholesterol, yet higher in protein than beef, which has led to the development of beefalo, a fertile hybrid 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. A market even exists 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.
One of our favorite dishes at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge Obsidian Dining Room was the wild game bolognese. It was a house-made bison and elk bolognese, fettuccine, diced tomato and Parmesan cheese. Delicious!!!!!! We had this more than once.
I also tried the bison stew at a restaurant in West Yellowstone. Yummy!
We each had a bison burger at he Old Faithful Inn Dining room, too.
Bison are found in publicly and privately held herds. Custer State Park in South Dakota is home to 1,500 bison, one of the largest publicly held herds in the world, but some question the genetic purity of the animals. Wildlife officials believe that free roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America can be found only in the Yellowstone Park bison herd, the Henry Mountains bison herd at the Book Cliffs and Henry Mountains in Utah, at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary in the Northwest Territories, Elk Island National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, and Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. Another population, the Antelope Island bison herd on Antelope Island in Utah, consisting of 550 to 700 bison, is also one of the largest and oldest public herds in the United States, but the bison in that herd are considered to be only semifree roaming, since they are confined to the Antelope Island. In addition, recent genetic studies indicate that, like most bison herds, the Antelope Island bison herd has a small number of genes from domestic cattle. In 2002, the United States government donated some bison calves from South Dakota and Colorado to the Mexican government. Their descendants live in the Mexican nature reserves El Uno Ranch at Janos and Santa Elena Canyon, Chihuahua, and Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, located near the southern banks of the Rio Grande, and around the grassland state line with Texas and New Mexico.
The American bison is often used in North America in official seals, flags, and logos. In 2016, the American bison became the national mammal of the United States. The 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. It is also used in the official coat of arms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
One of the flags flying over the Old Faithful Inn.
Several American coins feature the bison, 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 "Western Journey" series.
The Kansas and North Dakota state quarters, part of the "50 State Quarter" series, each feature bison. The Kansas state quarter has only the bison and does not feature any writing, while the North Dakota state quarter has two bison.
The Montana state quarter prominently features a bison skull over a landscape.
The Yellowstone National Park quarter also features a bison standing next to a geyser.
The bison of Yellowstone National Park are quite a sight to behold!