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American Bison

Updated on June 22, 2014

Let's Discuss The American Bison

The American bison, also incorrectly known as The American buffalo had roamed grasslands, prairies and other areas for thousands of years.They are known as the largest land animal in North America and were important to native American culture and the plains ecosystem. For generation they were hunted and the native people used most parts of the bovine in their daily lives.

The near eradication of this important animal caused much hardship to the people who depended on them. One of the reasons for the killings was to diminish the food source of the tribes.The numbers of the bison have now increased and the discussion continues as to how and where these large animals fit into our culture.

Picture courtesy of We For Animals.

The Beginnings Of The American Bison

An ice-aged bison, the Steppe Wisent ( bison priscus) crossed over to North America and evolved into the large Long- Horn Bison ( bison latifrons). This species died out and was replaced by two species, the Ancient Bison and Bison Oxidentalis. The Ancient Bison died off during the great megafauna extinction along with the woolly mammoth, the short faced bear and other very large mammals. The Bison Oxidentalis also became extinct and was replaced by the modern American Bison (bison bison).


Plains Bison, Wood Bison

For thousands of years bison were common all over Asia and Europe. In North America they were plentiful all the way from Canada to Mexico. The European bison ( bison bonasus bonasus) also known as the wisent, roamed the great forests that stretched from the British Isles to the European continent and into Siberia. The largest concentration of European bison now live in Poland's Bialowieza National Park.

The ancient steppe wisent crossed over to North America and populated it with bison species.The only one left is the American bison. The American has two sub-species left, the wood bison and the plains bison.

The other steppe wisent decendent that still exist is the European bison.The European had three sub-species but only one has survived, the lowland bison.

The North American bison known as the wood bison ( bison bison athabascae) lived in the dense forests, and the others lived on the prairie and became known as the plains bison ( bison bison bison). A small herd that resides in Yellowstone Park are known as mountain bison or wood bison. They live in a separate herd than the plains bison there.

A small herd that resides in Yellowstone Park are known as mountain bison or wood bison. They live in a separate herd than the Plains Bison there.

The extinct North American species are the long-horned Bison -( Bison latifrons), Ancient Bison -( Bison antiquus), Asian Bison - (Bison occidentalis) .

The extinct European species are Steppe Bison or Steppe Wisent - (Bison priscus), extinct sub species are Caucasus Bison -( Bison bonasus caucasicus) and Hungarian (Carpathian) Bison - (Bison bonasus hungarorum.)

More Recent History

In North America the bison roamed not only on the plains and prairie but also in the woodlands and in the mountains. Eastern woodland bison formerly called bison bison pennsylvanicus were smaller in size from the other plains bison and were killed off in the early 19th century. There was a debate as to whether they were a distinctive sub-species or the same as the plains or wood bison, they are now considered to have been a type of plains bison. It might be that they were smaller in size and lived in smaller groups due to habitat differences. Woodland bison were said to roam in smaller herds and walk single file through the woods to water sources. It would be easier to kill them even without a horse using a bow or a gun. Eventually only lone bulls or a cow with calf were seen and of course summarily shot. Then no more sightings. Elk and other wild life also disappeared due to the non sustainable over hunting for sport, export, trade and burgeoning human population along with loss of habitat.

Thought to be near extinction until a small herd of two hundred wood bison was found in Alberta Canada in 1957. The wood bison had lived in Canada and Alaska though none were left in Alaska. For approximately twenty years there had been plans to bring them back. On June 2008 fifty three wood bison were reintroduced to Alaska. They were sent from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton Alberta to The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood near Anchorage for a two year quarantine. They should be repatriated to Minto Flats area near Fairbanks or released to Yukon Flats or Innoko Flats in the near future.

Mass slaughter during the late 19th century almost sounded the death knell for the plains bison. At the end of the 19th century there was only one wild wood bison herd in a remote area of Yellowstone National Park which in 1883 had 200 and by 1901 was reduced to twenty five. A survey taken in 1889 determined that there was only 1,091 known bison in North America. Private citizens started keeping captive bison on private lands and The Bronx Zoo started their herd in 1899. In order to increase the numbers in Yellowstone they used bison from private owners. In1905 the American Bison Society was formed at the Bronx Zoo to help keep the bison from extinction. Bison from the Bronx herd were sent west to different preserves to reestablish them.

There are around 500,000 American bison in North America and the majority are now in private hands. Some are cross bred with cattle. Yellowstone National Park has the largest population of free-roaming plains bison. They also have the oldest continuous herd of bison in the U.S. They are referred to by some as mountain bison but are genetically wood bison.

One plan would be to continue to send Bison from zoos like the Bronx Zoo, Queens Zoo, Minnesota Zoo coupled with bison from private owners to establish free roaming herds.

Buffalo Commons Revisited

New Jersey social scientists Frank and Deborah Popper put forth an idea in 1987 which caused a major stir. Their idea was that the population of the great plains was decreasing. These areas were losing their young to other parts of the country leaving the elders behind. The obvious reasons is that there are no jobs or perceived opportunities. The Ogalala aquifer which supplies water to the plains and other areas was found to be drying up. More was being pumped out than was being replenished.

The Buffalo Commons plan was to make the area a large nature park that would attract tourists and reclaim the area back to its original state. Not only was there to be the reintroduction of the bison but elk, bears, and wolves. This would have been a part of a wider prairie reclamation project where wild grasses and other native plants would also have been encouraged to grow.

Recently there has been debates about the Keystone XL pipeline if built where they want will be close to and maybe contaminating the Ogalala aquifer ground water.

Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is now a big money maker in parts of the great plains. Natural gas is dislodged from underground by blasting it with millions of gallons of chemical laden water. Now small rural towns are being populated with workers for the gas companies. But for some years now households have noticed their tap water smells funny and ignites into flames when in contact with a match.

It will depend on what state the land and water will be after all this is finished. Both people and animals need clean water, clean air and unpolluted soil to thrive.

Thinking about Buffalo Commons

Do you think Buffalo Commons is a good idea?

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Videos on these Great Beasts of North America

What do you think about the American Bison?

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    • lclchors profile image


      7 years ago

      /we have private herds around here and I love photograhing them

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens on a magnificent creature! Wonderful job!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      These are magnificent animals. I have seen some out West. It is such a shame we killed off so many of them.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      A older gentleman I used to take care of before he passed away had 3 Bison, they are fascinating to watch, I enjoyed this lens very much, thank you.

    • ChrisDay LM profile image

      ChrisDay LM 

      8 years ago

      Wonderful stuff!


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