The bison inhabited the Great Plains of the United States and
Canada 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. With their huge bulk,
Wood Bison are surpassed in size only by the massive Asian Gaur
and wild water buffalo, both of which are found mainly in India
and Southeast Asia.
Bison have a shaggy, dark brown winter coat, and a lighter weight, lighter brown summer coat. Bison can reach up to 2 meters (6˝ ft) tall, 3 meters (10 ft) long and weigh 900 to 2,000 lbs (400 to 900 kg). The biggest specimens on record have weighed as much as 1140 kg (2,500 lb). 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 mate in August and September; 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.
One very rare condition results in the white buffalo, where the calf turns entirely white. It is not to be confused with albino, since white bison still possess pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes. White bison are considered sacred by many Native Americans.
Due to its size and the protection afforded by living in a herd, the bison have few enemies besides humans. Grizzly bears and wolves may attempt to attack young calves or sub-adults, but only in the dead of winter when the herd cannot expend the energy to protect stragglers. A wolf pack can also take down an adult bison, wolves frequently test even the largest bison for weaknesses; usually several wolves may pursue a bison and attempt to bring it down after the bison has succumbed to exhaustion or wounds from the wolves' bites. The only other threat, other than hunting by humans, that leads to the depletion of wild bison is interbreeding with domestic bovines. In fact, only a small number of bison herds found in North America today consist of pure-bred bison.
Their mating habits are polygamous: dominant bulls maintain a small harem of females for mating. Individual bulls "tend" females until allowed to mate, 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." Inter-sexual bison also occur. The Lakota refer to them as pte winkte —pte meaning bison and winkte designating two-spirit— thereby drawing an explicit parallel between transgender in animals and people. (Bruce Bagemihl, Whole Earth, 2006) See Homosexuality in animals.
Juveniles are lighter in color than mature bison for the first three months of life. The mating season is in middle to late summer, and as late as September in northern ranges. Gestation is 285 days, generally allowing the calves a springtime birth.
The American Bison is a relative newcomer to North America, having originated in Eurasia and migrated over the Bering Strait. About 10,000 years ago it replaced the Long-horned Bison (Bison priscus), a previous immigrant that was much larger. It is thought that the Long-horned Bison may have become extinct due to a changing ecosystem and hunting pressure following the development of the Clovis point and related technology, and improved hunting skills. During this same period, other megafauna vanished and were replaced to some degree by immigrant Eurasian animals that were better adapted to predatory humans. The American Bison, technically a dwarf form, was one of these animals. Another was the brown bear, which replaced the short-faced bear.
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 writes in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann discusses 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 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. 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 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 very small numbers by the mid-1880s. One major cause was a government initiative to starve the population of the Plains Indian by killing off their main food source--the bison. The Government for this goal promoted bison hunting for various reasons, the main one being economics.
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.
Herds of these large animals 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, the herds could delay a train for days.
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 $3.00 in Dodge City, Kansas, and a very good one (the heavy winter coat) could sell for $50.00 in an era when a labourer would be lucky to make a dollar a day.
The hunter would customarily locate the herd in the early morning, and station himself about 100 meters 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 favour 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 Grant "pocket vetoed" a Federal bill to protect the dwindling bison herds and in 1875 General Philip Sheridan promoted in Congressional testimony the slaughter of the herds to help 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, Scotty 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, but this is compared to an estimated 60–100 million in the mid-19th century. Most current herds, however, are partly crossbred with cattle (see "beefalo"); 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 from the Wind Cave herd was recently established in Montana by the World Wildlife Fund.
The only continuously wild bison herd in the United States resides within Yellowstone National Park. Numbering between 3000 and 3500, 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.
Also see the Battle at Kruger.
This Buffalo Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub