no other animal symbolizes the West as dramatically as the American
bison. In prehistoric times millions of these animals roamed the
North American Continent from the Great Slave Lake in northern Canada,
south into Mexico and from coast to coast. No one knows how many
bison there were, but the naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton, estimated
their numbers at sixty million when Columbus landed. They were part
of the largest community of wild animals that the world has ever
are part of the family Bovidae, to which cattle and goats
belong. They are not in the same family that Asian and African
buffalo are. However, because they resembled these old world
animals, the early explorers called them by that name. Although
it is a misnomer, the name buffalo is still used interchangeably
with bison. One of the physical differences between the old
world buffalo and the American bison is the large shoulder
hump of the bison. This hump, along with a broad, massive
head, short, thick neck and small hindquarters give the animal
its rugged appearance.
and character of the bison's fur varies with the season. A
mature bull in winter has a dark brown to black coat. The
length of the hair measures up to sixteen inches on the forehead,
ten inches on the forelegs, and only eight inches on the hindquarters.
No wonder the bison, unlike domestic cattle, face into storms.
The best description of a bison's
temperament is UNPREDICTABLE.
They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet
they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent
reason. To a casual observer, a grazing bison appears slow
and clumsy, but he can outrun, out turn, and traverse rougher
terrain than all but the fleetest horse. They can move at
speeds of up to thirty-five miles per hour and cover long
distances at a lumbering gallop.
most obvious weapon is the horns that both male and female
have. But their head, with its massive skull, can be used
as a battering ram, effectively using the momentum produced
by two thousand pounds moving at thirty miles per hour! The
hind legs can also be used to kill or maim with devastating
effect. At the time bison ran wild, they were rated second
only to the Alaska brown bear as a potential killer, more
dangerous than the grizzly bear. In the words of early naturalists,
they were a dangerous, savage animal who feared no other
and in prime condition could best any foe. A bull with lowered
head, snorting and pawing the ground, with tail stiffly
conveys a universal warning of danger to all nearby that
is impossible to ignore!
The rutting, or mating, season lasts from June through September
with peak activity in July and August. At this time, the older
bulls rejoin the herd and fights often take place between
bulls. The herd exhibits much restlessness during breeding
season the animals are belligerent, unpredictable and most
Listen to the bison (42k wav file)
Calves, born nine to nine and one-half months later in April
or May, generally weigh thirty to seventy pounds. They have
reddish-brown fur and do not have the conspicuous hump of
the adult. After a few months, the fur begins to change to
chocolate brown and the hump begins to develop.
activities of the bison include rubbing, rolling, and wallowing.
Wallowing creates a saucer-like depression called a wallow.
This wallow was once a common feature of the plains; usually
these wallows are dust bowls without any vegetation.
have poor eyesight but acute hearing and an excellent sense
of smell. The sounds they make range from a pig-like grunt to
an aggressive bellow.
it was estimated there were forty million bison, by 1883, there
were no wild bison in the United States. By 1900, there were
less than six hundred left in North America. The majority of
the forty million animals were killed in a fifty-five year period,
beginning in 1830. Many people denounced the slaughter; few
did anything to stop it. Fortunately, a small, devoted group
of conservationists managed to save a few hundred. The bison
we see and enjoy today were raised from these few survivors.
Much has been written concerning
the economic value of the bison to the American Indian. The
bison sustained a way of life, providing food, clothing, shelter,
and fuel. Extermination of the bison spelled the doom of American