Bison. History and Identification. Characteristics

History. Buffalo is the common name for the American bison, although in strict usage "buffalo" applies only to the larger species of Asia and Africa. Within the ox family (Bovidae), our species (Bison bison) is more closely related to the European bison (Bison banasus). There is no evidence of descent from the great Superbison of the American Tertiary Period. More probably the short-horned American buffalo was an immigrant from Europe or Asia, arriving in North America in the middle Pleistocene.

At one time the buffalo's range extended over about a third of the continent, between Great Slave Lake in Canada, and northeastern Mexico. It reached west of the Rockies to the Blue Mountains in Oregon and the Sierra Nevadas in the Southwest. East of the Mississippi it was shallower, running from the Great Lakes to central Georgia. Although buffaloes may never have been numerous east of the Alleghenies, they were found as far east as the Tidewater section of Virginia.

The largest known Bison , formerly a member of the Wichita herd

A century and a half ago they were plentiful in the central part of New York and in Pennsylvania. History records the slaughter of a herd of 10,000 in this part of the country in 1790, and in 1792 one animal was killed on the street in Harrisburg, Pa. By 1820, however, buffaloes were rare east of the Mississippi.

Three sub-species are generally recognized; the plains bison (Bison bison bison), the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae Rhoads), and the eastern bison (Bison bison pennsylvanicus). Some mammalogists distinguish a fourth race, the mountain bison (Bison bison haningtoni Figgins), which was peculiar to the mountains of Colorado. The eastern race of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia was extinct by 1815.

The history of the bison in Canada parallels that of the animal in this country. Where scores of thousands roamed the country in the vicinity of Morley and Calgary, the major haunt of the animals in Canada, not one remained by the turn of the century. Far to the north near Great Slave Lake , a small isolated herd of wood buffalo remained. The Dominion Government made a reasonably successful attempt to reestablish plains bison there.

Between 1906 and 1912, it distributed buffalo in small herds among several national parks. Canada now has more than 40,000 bison. Since 1959 the North West Territories Council has permitted regulated hunting of the surplus animals. This is the only place in North America where truly wild buffalo can be seen in all of their natural glory and hunted by those who are brave.

It was the plains or prairie bison which made up the tremendous herds of the Great Plains. Their total number has been estimated at 60 to 75 million. During the spring migration, wagon trains and later railroad trains often were surrounded by herds reaching as far as the eye could see; because of the danger of stampedes, trains were stalled on the track, in one instance for eight hours. The classic account, however, was given by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, who in 1871 rode for three days through a herd which he judged to be 25 miles wide for at least part of its length, with 15 to 20 animals grazing to the acre. He estimated the length of this herd at 50 miles, from the fact that it took five days to pass one point. This was an army of perhaps four million animals.

But already the great herds were dwindling rapidly. The plains Indians, depending primarily on the buffalo for food and on its hide for their bedding and shelter, abhorred waste, and usually killed judiciously. White men, however, killed thousands of animals for the tongues alone. Dried or smoked tongues became a commodity, shipped down-river from St. Louis. With cheap rail and steamboat transportation, the bulky hides gained a commercial importance formerly held by beaver skins during the vogue of the beaver hat. Buffalo robes were widely used as rugs and as substitutes for blankets, and the demand spurted in 1870 when an English firm began processing the tough hides for leather. Professional buffalo hunters, followed by teams of skinners with wagons, left acres of rotting carcasses behind them.

Bone-gathering became a profitable occupation. The Santa Fe railroad made Dodge City in Kansas a boom center of the hide and bone trades. In 1875 some stations in this region were handling buffalo bones at the rate of a carload a day. When pulverized, the bones were used as fertilizer or processed for carbon for sugar refining.

By the turn of the century the plains bison was in imminent danger of extinction. The completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869 had divided the buffalo masses into northern and southern herds. In 1895 only 800 animals remained of the northern herd. In 1888 Colonel C. J. ("Buffalo") Jones had rescued a few calves of the southern herd, keeping some on his ranch in the Texas Panhandle and presenting some to neighbors. But a scientist making a careful survey in 1903 discovered only 969 individuals in the United States.

Thanks are due largely to the New York Zoological Society and the American Bison Society for preventing the extinction of the buffalo. Theodore Roosevelt played an important role in developing a federal program to save the remnant herds, which today contain more than 4,000 animals.

Identification. The massive head and the hump on its shoulders give the buffalo its characteristic outline. Long , woolly hair on head, hump , and shoulders, contrasting sharply in texture with the short hair on the rest of the body, adds to the bulky effect. On the head the hair grows 10 to 14 inches long, and the ears are practically hidden in this woolly pompadour. A distinctive feature is the 8 to 10 inch beard. Twelve inches is the record length, but zoo animals may have equaled or surpassed this, since their beards are not worn short by grazing.

Both sexes have permanent horns, short, thick at the base but tapering sharply. These curve out and up ward at the sides of the head, suggesting handles. T h e horns of the cow are smaller at the base and more sharply pointed than the bull's, and curve inward farther toward the head. The young calves have straight horns which gradually acquire the curve.

A grown plains bison five or six years old stands from 5 1/2 to 6 feet high at the hump , and may be from 9 to 12 1/2 feet long from nose tip to tail tip, with 20 to 36 inches of this length in tail. The average weight is between 1800 and 2000 pounds, although there is a record of a Kansas bull which weighed 3000 pounds. T h e cow is considerably smaller, weigh in g about 800 pounds. The average height is about 5 feet, the length about 7 feet, including 16 inches or so of tail.

In the bull the horns average 18 inches long, with an average circumference of 13 inches at the base. The record measurements are: length, 23 1/4 inches; circumference at base, 16 inches; greatest spread, 35 3/8 inches.

Though often described as brown, over most of his body the plains bison is more nearly the dark tan of saddle leather. In spring the woolly mantle over the bull's hump becomes a lighter, yellowish tan. The head, throat, forelegs, and tail are dark, however. Especially with the spring pelage, the contrast of the dark head with the lighter shades is striking. The cows, generally darker in the body, show less contrast. The calves are very light at birth, with the brown showing only on the nose and around the eyes. In about six months they acquire the coloring of the adults, and at two years are considerably darker. From this point on the coloring grows lighter as the animal grows older.

The wood bison was much darker than the prairie buffalo, and showed its dorsal strips. It was also a larger animal, with long legs, a higher hump , and a more massive head, broader between the base of the horns. The horns were an inch or so shorter than those of the southern race, but thicker at the base, and they curved in closer to the head.

The mountain bison of Colorado was distinguished for its soft, fine coat of a reddish color and for its creamy muzzle. The horns were large and spread comparatively wide.

We have no detailed description of the eastern bison; writings of the 18th-century observers indicate that it resembled the wood bison, but was very dark, and perhaps nearly black, and that the hump was poorly developed or lacking altogether.

Characteristics. The plains bison likes open country. It is primarily a grazer, preferring short, fine grasses like grama, bluestem, buffalo, and bunch grass. If hard up , though, it will browse on sagebrush. The wood bison was more of a browser; in winter it depended heavily on willow twigs. In spite of its name, the wood bison was not associated with heavy timber.

On the plains, roads and railroads have been laid along trails made by buffalo herds going to water. The animals water once a day, sometimes traveling 20 or 30 miles. Like sheep, they string out in single file; some of their trails were worn a foot deep.

Shallow basins, where the animals have torn up the earth with horns and hoofs and rolled, are a feature of buffalo country. Apparently a good coating of m u d gives relief or protection in the mosquito season. Since buffalo wallows become pools after rain, they saved lives in frontier days; in some cases troops of cavalry found enough water for both men and horses. Buffaloes seem to itch a good deal in summer.

They rub the bark off trees, and have been credited with wearing stones smooth and knocking down telegraph poles with their scratching. When they had the freedom of the open prairies, they normally traveled from 200 to 400 miles between their winter and summer feeding grounds.

The great herds, which were made up of numerous distinct smaller groups of 50 to 200 animals each, were seen only in spring and summer, during the northward migration. The plains Indians believed that each year an entirely new set of buffaoes appeared, released by a benevolent god from an underground cavern in the Staked Plains of Texas . Drifting southward in the fall, the animals were seen only in comparatively small herds, some of bulls only.

Distribution of Bison

Buffalo calves are born in April or May, after a gestation period of about nine and a half months. In a day they can follow their mothers. They and the wary cows make up the front ranks or center of a herd, which usually is led by an old cow. The bulls, forming a scattered fringe, are described by some observers as sentinels. A few old bulls may be stragglers. Aged or disabled bulls often are seen alone.

In spring the animals are very nervous; it has been said that they will stampede from a cloud shadow. During the rutting season in July and August they are more easily approached, but also are more irritable. Buffaloes generally are timid, but their temperament always is uncertain. One never knows when a bull will decide to charge.

The usual attack is a head-on ramming charge in which the horns do not come into play. In the rutting season, however, the bulls rake their rivals. In butting they may knock each other out, but their fights are seldom fatal. Buffaloes have poor eyesight, but their hearing and sense of smell are quite acute. When vaguely alarmed, they walk slowly into the wind. One unusual characteristic is the fact that they face a blizzard.

They are famous for endurance—old-timers of the plains vowed that a running buffalo could tire three horses—and they are strong swimmers. Besides man, the buffalo's chief enemy has been the gray wolf, though it is doubtful that wolves ever did much worse than to pick off the weaker specimens and the aged. So far as is known , the species is not subject to any epidemic diseases.

Range and Distribution. Because of the establishment of the protected herds at the beginning of this century, there is no question of the buffalo's survival. Its present numbers, however, are limited by the available range. The big-game inventory of 1963 showed the following distribution outside national parks:

The Alaskan bison herd originated from 23 animals released in 1928 on Big Delta.


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