It does not really matter what this magnificent animal is called. It will still be a powerful wild creature that embodies the American Spirit, bringing to mind both the wild freedom and destruction of the American West. And now, it holds special status as the official National Mammal of the United States of America. On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act. This new elevated status is meant to emphasize the bison’s cultural and economic significance in American history.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Ancestors of the current American Bison have been traced to a land migration from Asia thousands of years ago. Although smaller than those ancient beasts, today’s bison have been a part of America for hundreds of years. As recent as the early 19th century, the bison numbered in the multi-millions and ran free over much of North America. These formidable animals were integral to the lives of many Native American tribes, providing not only spiritual imagery and stories but also food, clothing, fuel, tools, and even shelter. This scene from Dances with Wolves shows a buffalo hunt as it may have happened those many years ago.
Then settlers and hunters moved across the country and killed roughly 50 million bison often for their coats or for sport, leaving the corpses to rot. Some of the slaughter was intentional as an action to decimate Native Americans, given their interdependence with the herds. By the end of the 19th century, the enormous herds had been reduced to a few hundred surviving animals.
In 1883, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to the Dakota Territory for a bison hunting trip. After several years and a changed outlook, Roosevelt became committed to preserving what was left of the bison. In 1905, he was instrumental—along with others—in forming the American Bison Society, which developed a bison breeding program through the then New York City Zoo (now the Bronx Zoo). In 1913, the Society donated 14 bison to the Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota), starting major bison re-population efforts that continue today.
Today bison live in all 50 states, and herds are being re-introduced in Mexico. American numbers have increased to a total of nearly 500,000 animals, but most of these show evidence of inter-breeding with cattle so are considered semi-domesticated. Currently, many bison are raised for their meat, which is slowly growing in use and popularity. About 20,000 truly wild bison remain on various preserves and public and native lands.
As of 2015, Yellowstone National Park was home to the largest wild herd of almost 5,000 animals. This herd has the special distinction of being direct descendants of the original herds that have continuously inhabited the area since ancient times. This herd’s lineage can be linked back to 23 bison that escaped the slaughters of the 19th century. Most other free-ranging herds had to be re-introduced to the various farms and nature preserves they now inhabit.
SOME BASIC BISON FACTS
This year, I visited Yellowstone National Park and witnessed these formidable beasts in action. I was there in the spring so saw family groups that included “red dogs,” the term used for the light golden-colored calves. There were also a few isolated bison wandering the fields, a typical activity for younger males that leave the family groups once they reach about two years of age, joining together eventually in small all-male bands. The male bands rejoin the groups of females and juveniles, forming large groups during the late summer mating season. After a nine-month gestation period, cows give birth in the spring. Most cows have single births, and the new born calf weighs about 50 pounds.
During the mating season, males battle for mating supremacy, but these bouts rarely turn dangerous. When I visited the park this spring, I saw what I assume were two “teens” practicing this battle behavior as they played in the field. Later, two frisky calves even practiced the behavior. These videos are not the best—sorry. [I did learn that I should invest in a tripod if I am going to videotape activities when the camera is set to the highest magnification.]
What impressed me the most about the bison I was able to observe on this trip was their sheer physical prowess. These animals are the largest mammals in North America, so it is no wonder they appeared massive and powerful. An adult male bison stands 5 to 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder and can weigh over a ton. Females stand 4 to 5 feet tall and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Both males and females have the characteristic sharp, curved horns that typically reach lengths of two feet or more. Their coat is so dense that when snow accumulates, it rarely melts since it never makes it below the surface.
I sure would love to run my fingers through that dense coat.
As I spotted bison throughout the national park, they always seemed to be eating. Actually, they do spend 9 to 11 hours a day grazing on grasses and shrubs. But do not be deceived by their placid, calm demeanor. They are considered unpredictable and at times even irritable. They can run for long distances, reaching speeds up to 40 miles per hour. When they roamed free, they were considered savage and more dangerous than a Grizzly Bear.
Lee. H. Whittlesey wrote the book Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. One chapter is devoted to the death and destruction caused by bison, especially when tourists get too close, somehow forgetting these are indeed wild animals. As of the second edition’s reprinting in 2014, there were only 2 deaths from bison since 2013, but the potential is always there. Rangers constantly warn, “Keep your distance!”
I am sure I will return to Yellowstone again and again, mainly to see these magnificent animals. Thankfully, they are no longer endangered and will hopefully continue to stay safe now that they are America’s National Mammal. Of course, free-ranging herds can be seen at other locations besides Yellowstone: There are herds at Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota, about 350 animals), Antelope Island State Park (Utah, 700 animals), the Henry Mountains (Utah, 500 animals), and the National Bison Range National Refuge (Montana, 400 animals). Also, every September, tourists can watch a Buffalo Round Up of more than 1,000 animals at South Dakota’s Custer State Park. These places are all going on my must-see list!
FINALLY, WHAT ABOUT THE NAME?
Bison is the term most often associated with these magnificent animals, now. It is the more scientifically correct term, and it comes from the Greek meaning ox-like animal. Bison was first recorded in use in reference to the American Bison in 1774. The term buffalo seems incorrect because there is not a hereditary link between the American animal and the true buffalos from Asia and Africa. However, the term buffalo comes from French fur trappers calling the American animal boeuf, meaning ox or bullock. The conversion of boeuf into buffalo dates to 1635 when its usage was first recorded. Given this information, either term is equally correct. Personally, I really like the Sioux word tatanka!
Have you ever seen these wondrous animals in the wild? Do you have a favorite wild animal you have seen or hope to see in the wild?