Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 95 – The American Bison

American bison - close up in the snow

“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground”
Crow chief Plenty Coups

It is difficult to say anything about the historic slaughter of the bison that has not already been said.  But, for the few who are unfamiliar with the unparalleled bloodshed of the late nineteenth century, it is safe to say those responsible succeeded in killing two birds with one stone, as was their intention, massively depleting the numbers of free-roaming bison, and defeating the entire Plains Indian Nation in the west of America at the same time.

American bison herd from Nat GeographicThese magnificent beasts were reduced in number from an estimated thirty million or more to just over one thousand, and the Plains Indians were brought to their knees.  Never in history has such appalling devastation been caused to any other species of animal or had such a lasting effect on native peoples.

In both, the aggressors shamefully succeeded with ne’er a backward glance. 

Originally initiated by the United States government to deprive the Plains Indians of their livelihood, in order to seize their lands for white settlers, the annihilation burgeoned into commercial hunting and greed, and the bison were then massacred for sport and profit. Their skins were sold and their carcasses left to rot.  Hardly a beast was left to roam the lands they had inhabited for thousands of years, and the government and army, unable to tackle the vast numbers of bison alone, turned a blind eye to it all.

“Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” said Colonel Richard Dodge, a US Army officer, in 1867. Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior at the time, reiterated this thought in his 1872 annual report, “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds must operate largely in favour of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”

American bison - stampedeBison were a lifeline for the indigenous Indians. The bison offered the people a whole cornucopia of unprocessed staples.  They hunted them for meat, an activity which barely made a dent in the herds, utilised the by-products, such as skins, for clothing, tepees and utensils, and found many other practical uses for every part of the animal from the horns to the hairs of the tail – nothing was wasted.

The wondrous bison was revered by the Plains Indians.  It symbolised sacred life, provision, gratitude, abundance, consistency, strength, stability, blessing and prosperity.

Striking at the heart of the Plains Indian’s cultural heritage, the mass slaughter of the bison was the beginning of detribalisation of the Indian Nation.

The land of the Plains Indians was lost and their way of life all but eliminated.  Most were packed off to reservations to live out their days in virtual poverty as Native Americans.

The handful of surviving bison  sheltered in the valleys of the now well-known Yellowstone National Park.

The American bison is the largest land animal in North America, weighing up to two thousand pounds, making it almost twice as heavy as the average domestic cow.  Males can stand six feet from hoof to shoulder.  Interestingly, females, standing only a foot shorter, can often weigh half as much as males, and both sexes can be as long as twelve feet or more.  These are certainly big beasts – but not the biggest.  The Asian gaur, African buffalo and Asian water buffalo are way ahead.

American bison - close upThat said, the heads and forequarters of the American bison are massive, surrounded by a mane of thick woolly hair, a beard under the chin and a hump on the shoulders.  Both male and female of the species have sharp, curved horns which are used for defence and, for males, during mating rituals.

The bison’s thick, shaggy coat, an adaptation to the severe weather conditions of the plains, is well insulated. So well insulated, snow can settle on it and ice form without melting.  This dense coat is dark brown in winter, changing to a slightly paler colour during the spring weather when the coat starts to shed.  Until shedding is complete, the coat hangs in thick uneven clumps.  The process of ‘wallowing’ may well be associated with this annual shed.   A wallow is a saucer-like hollow in the ground in which bison roll  and rub, covering themselves with dust or mud.

American bison calf - Zoo de Servion, Switzerland 2012Bison are migratory animals and have been known to cover several kilometres a day, grazing as they go. They live and travel in small, separate groups, with the ‘cows’ leading the individual families.  During the mating, June through to September, they gather in large herds.  Following a gestation period of nine months, a single calf will be born, twins are extremely rare.  Calves are precocial and will be on their feet within the hour and soon be able to keep pace with the herd when it moves. Calves weigh an average of forty pounds at birth and will have all their primary teeth in place, but neither humps nor horns. Their coats are much paler than their parents’ but will start to darken after the third month. The young will be dependent on mother’s milk for about a year, during which time the mother will fiercely protect the calf against predators.  When threatened, females form a defensive circles around the calves, and the males form circles around the cows.  The males at the ready to charge if necessary and the females ready to run with the calves to safety, and use their horns to repel the predator if needs must.

As a footnote;  bison are often referred to as buffalo.  In fact, they lack the characteristics of the true buffalo found in the wilds of Africa and Asia, and are only very distantly related.

Natural Habitat
Prairies, plains and river valleys.
North America, Canada and Alaska (introduced In 1928).
What they eat
Mostly grasses and sedges.  They regurgitate their food and chew the cud.
Loss of habitatthese magnificent beasts need far more space to roam than they have been ‘given’.  Competition with cattle for grazing has seen their historic ranges denied to them.  Other parts of their range have been cultivated.
Persecutionthey are seen as health threats to cattle and brucellosis is said to be passed from the bison to domestic cattle – this is not the case.  There are no reported incidents of this happening, but the thought that it could is used as an excuse to keep the bison away from the grazing claimed by ranchers.
Perception bison are seen primarily as food and treated as livestock, not as wild animals, therefore not afforded the status they deserve.  Recognition as a wild animal and segregation from domestic cattle will play a large part in the future of the species.
Diseasespassed on my domestic cattle.
Hunting there is no season for killing bison.  For the price of a permit, anyone can shoot wild bison on organised hunts or alone.
Cross-breeding of today’s existing herds, most are not pure bred bison, but are the result of cross-breeding with cattle.  Only the Yellowstone herds are known to be genetically pure.
Bison have few natural predators, due to their sheer bulk, but there are a some which include bears and wolves which will prey upon the sick, the elderly and the young.
Status: Near Threatened
The American bison (ssp. Bison bison) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Near Threatened (likely to become endangered in the near future).  There are two subspecies of bison described.  The subspecies wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) is listed individually on Cites Appendix II and currently only exists in the wild in Canada. Although there has been a come-back of the species since the devastating losses of the late 1800s, many animals now roaming the ranges are not pure wild bison, they have been cross-bred with cattle.  

Various dedicated people and organisations are working hard to restore the depleted herds of bison.  Here are just a few of the wonderful projects currently in action:

  • In 2009, 23 bison were taken to from South Dakota to Janos in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. These animals now roam freely in the Janos Biosphere Reserve.
  • Various wildlife reserves in the United States, such as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, have successfully reintroduced the American bison.
  • A captive herd of just over one hundred and thirty individuals is held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage in Alaska.
  • On March 19, 2012, 60 genetically pure bison were relocated from a quarantine facility outside Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in eastern Montana.
  • On August 22, 2013, 34 genetically pure animals were set loose on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana.  These were part of the Fort Peck herds.

Related Articles
Bison—beefing up their numbers in Nebraska
THE EXTERMINATION OF THE AMERICAN BISON. by William T. Hornaday – Free Download
The Near Annihilation of America’s Buffalo in Pictures
The Human Footprint   (Crow chief Plenty Coups)
Blood, Guts and Gore – Montana Investigates Bison Slaughter   (June 2013)
Conservationists unveil plans to restore bison to North American plains  (2010)
Bison Hunting in Alaska
Deal struck to reintroduce wood bison to Alaska wild  (January 2013)
Double Your Impact for Bison!
Bison, A Plains Supermarket
The Legend & Importance of the White Buffalo