The bison once inhabited the Grasslands of the United States and Asia in massive herds, ranging from the Great Slave Lake in Canada's far north to Mexico in the south, and from eastern Oregon almost to the Atlantic Ocean, taking its subspecies into account. Its two subspecies are the plains bison (Bison bison bison), distinguished by its smaller size and more rounded hump, and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), distinguished by its larger size and taller square hump. Wood bison are one of the largest species of cattle in the world, surpassed in size only by the massive Asian gaur and wild Asian water buffalo, both of which are found mainly in India and Southeast Asia.
A bison has a shaggy, dark brown winter coat, and a lighter weight, lighter brown summer coat. Bison can reach up to tall, long and weigh 1,300 to 3,900 pounds (400 to 1000 kg). 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 herbivores, grazing on the grasses and sedges 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.
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." Intersexual bison also occur. The Lakota refer to them as pte winkte—pte meaning bison and winkte designating two-spirit.
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 females escape. The length of a bison hunt varies, ranging from lasting a few minutes to 11 hours. Bison typically ignore wolves not displaying hunting behaviour.
Bison were a keystone species, whose grazing pressure was a force that shaped the ecology of the Great Plains as strongly as periodic prairie fires and which were central to the lifestyle of Native Americans of the Great Plains. But 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 bison jumps are found in several places in the U.S. and Canada, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. 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. The Plains horse Indians were in times of plenty sometimes wasteful, but this was not significant as the bison herds easily sustained the small number of animals taken.
Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century and were reduced to a few hundred by the mid-1880s. The main reason they were hunted was 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.
There were government initiatives at the federal and local level to starve the population of the Plains Indians by killing off their main food source, the bison. The Government promoted bison hunting for various reasons: to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines and to weaken the Indian population and pressure them to remain on reservations. The herds formed the basis of the economies of local Plains tribes of Native Americans for whom the bison were a primary food source. Without bison, the Native Americans would be forced to leave or starve.
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.
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 re-cast 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 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.
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.
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. But these 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.
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 (5 of them, including the female) from Dug Carlin, Pete Dupree's brother-in-law, whose 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. At the time of purchase there were approximately 7 pure buffalo. Scotty's goal was to preserve the animal from extinction. At the time of his death in 1911 at 53, Philip had grown the herd 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.
An 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 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 Park. A founder population of 16 animals from the Wind Cave herd was recently established in Montana by the American Prairie Foundation.
The only continuously wild bison herd in the United States resides within Yellowstone National Park. 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.
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 re-established 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 re-establish the hunt, given the bison's lack of habitat and wildlife status in Montana.
One of the bison's few natural predators is the wolf. Wolves will usually prey on the females and calves and will rarely attack healthy bulls.
The first thoroughfares of North America, save 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 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 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's phrase saluting these sagacious path-makers, the bison paved the way for the railroads to the Pacific.
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 USDA 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., such as at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, and the meat is then distributed nationwide.
Bison are found in both 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. Wildlife officials believe that there are only four free roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America, 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. For example, the herd on Santa Catalina Island, 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.
In popular culture
In the Original Star trek episode "The Man Trap", Kirk stuns Dr. Crater with a phaser in the ruins then Spock and Crater start discussing the buffalo and that in their time the buffalo is extinct. "Prairies were black with them, one herd of buffalo covered three whole states and when they moved, they were like thunder". "Like the creatures here, once there were millions of them. Now there's one left. Nancy understood".
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 buffalo as their mascot, including the University of Colorado Buffaloes. In Canada, the bison is used in the official coat of arms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Several American coins feature the bison, perhaps most famously on 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:
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 per hour. Between 1978 and 1992, over four times as many people in Yellowstone National Park were killed or injured by bison as by bears (12 by bears, 56 by bison). Bison also have the unexpected ability, given the animal's size and body structure, to leap over a standard barbed-wire fence.