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The Iconic American Bison
The American Bison
Bison or Buffalo ?
The American Bison, also known as the American Buffalo, is not actually a member of the buffalo family and is more closely related to cows and goats. The term Bison roughly translates to “ox-like,” but in pre-colonial days, French fur trappers called them bœufs, which means ox or bullock, and over time the two became synonymous. Two types of Buffalo are indigenous to North America, the Plains Bison and the Woods Bison. The Woods Bison is the largest existing land animal in North America. The major differences between the two types are that the Plains Bison has a more rounded humped back and is smaller than the Woods Bison, which has a taller and almost squarish-looking hump. Both species have similar features aside from the aforementioned differences; Dark brown, long, shaggy coats in the winter and a lighter brown thinner coat in summer after they shed in the spring.
The male bison of both species is somewhat larger than the female but both sexes have massive front forequarters and huge heads. Both sexes also grow horns that can be up to two feet in length. These are primarily used for fighting off predators and in single combat events within the herd for mates. One of the interesting facts about Bison horns is that they are actually hollow caps which grow over a bone-like core. The cap may be broken off and will not grow back, however the core will remain. Wood Bison adult males, the larger of the two species, stand between 5’ and 6’ tall at their highest point and can weigh anywhere between 700lbs to 2200lbs. Plains Bison on the other hand would fall within these same ranges, but in the lower half of both weight and height. Females would be about 4’ to 4 1/2’ tall and weigh nearly 1000lbs.
Male and Female Bison
Historic Range of North American Bison
Early History of North American Bison
These large hooved mammals once roamed the Great Plains of North America with a total range that covered almost the entire continent. They are a herding animal, travelling and living in large numbers with estimates that the entire continent held 40 million of these animals during their peak. The Plains Indian tribes hunted buffalo for many years before the arrival of settlers from Europe, only killing animals for the survival of their peoples. As more settlers moved west the herds were still estimated to be 25 million to 30 million animals. New ranches and farms were built and grazing lands were diminished plus aggressive industrial-like hunting of these animals almost led to their extinction. The demand for buffalo hides often meant animals were slaughtered, skinned, and their carcasses left in huge piles for scavengers to feed on. After the meat was consumed or had rotted away, their bones were collected and sent back east to be ground up and sold as fertilizer. In other instances, demand for meat to make pemmican for trappers and explorers led to slaughter. Another seldom heard of rationale was an intentional slaughter of the food source of the native tribes by settlers in hope of driving the Indians further west. Due to the nature of Buffalo, they were quite easy to hunt. When a member of the herd went down presumably injured or killed, the remaining animals gathered around it. Hunters then surrounded the stalled herb and slaughtered the remaining animals.
This inflated level of killing went on until the mid-1880s when populations dwindled into the thousands. If it hadn’t been for the efforts of Conservationists and some ranchers, the American Buffalo might have gone the way of extinction. A nostalgic twinge pulled the heartstrings of some Americans who gathered a small group of Buffalo and put them to pasture on private land in hopes of saving them from hunters. One small wild herd managed to escape slaughter by hiding in a remote valley of Yellowstone National Park. These animals were carefully taken care of and the herds gradually grew in size over the last hundred years. There are varying reports about the number of buffalo in North America today, ranging anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million animals.
Charles Rath, famous Buffalo hunter sits on 40,000 hides
Bison Bones Being Shipped East
Life of a Bison
With the survival of this American icon, we are able to learn more about these majestic animals and how they interact with the world around them. Bison are roaming grazing animals; herbivores that are almost always eating even as they walk from place to place. Their typical routine would be to eat for several hours, and either rest or chew their cud before moving to another location and repeating the cycle; each day the herd will move about two miles. Wild Bison were though to live for about twenty years, with those in captivity living longer. Although they typically walk, Bison can run and have been clocked up to thirty miles per hour. History tells tales of large herds of Buffalo being spooked and running all out across the plains, making the earth shake and the air filled with a thunderous sound that carried for miles. Some interesting herd dynamics with Bison are observed, with the males congregating in one group and the females and calves in another. Both groups travel closely but the split can be easily spotted. In mid-summer, the soon-onset of breeding season will cause some of the males to mingle within the female herd starting their search for a mate. Female Bison are ready to mate after they have reached two to three years old, while male Bison’s are not ready until they are about six years old.
Buffalo Calf at Play
Bison Bulls will move through the female herd and “select” a female they wish to mate with by “tending” to her. This means the Bull will position himself between her and the rest of the herb, symbolically and physically defending her. This ritual can last for a few hours or take several days. If the female agrees to mate she will stay but if not, she will walk away from the tending Bull. As the male Bison start to pick put their mates, fights often break out. Bulls will attack other males who they see as competitors or who are getting too close to their chosen female. These fights are in the form of head butting, locking horns, or shoving one another. The massive hump on a Bison’s back is a cluster of muscle supported by long vertebrae which makes their heads formidable weapons. A thick mat of hair and a system of bone struts between the inner and outer skull protect the brain from being damaged in these collisions. Competing Bulls exhibit some odd behaviors, often wallowing in the dirt, then urinating in the wallow and resuming rolling around in it before resuming a challenge. Females have also been observed urinating in the wallow and rubbing their necks in the soil. Bulls use their tongues to transfer the hormone-laden urine to receptors in the roofs of their mouths.
When both the male and female agree to mate, they will do so multiple times in late summer. If successful the impregnated females (cows) will carry their calves for about 9 ½ months (285 days on average.) Usually only a single calf is carried by a cow. Calves are born in April or May of the following year and are reddish-brown in color when born and will nurse until their mother becomes impregnated again. Newly birthed calves weigh about 50lb each and do not have a hump. It starts to develop after a few months. They can stand within an hour after being born and can walk within a few minutes after that. Male Bison do not participate in the upbringing of new calves. Their fur begins to darken after about six months and by the age of one, Bison are fully independent. Male calves will remain in the female herd for several years.
Buffalo Bulls in Combat
Bison Battle - Yellowstone - BBC
Wolfpack Attacking Bison
Male herd dynamics are interesting with the top bull dominating the rest of the group and the downward hierarchy being linear, with the second most dominant next, then the third, and so on. Subordinate bulls rarely challenge the order. Dominance is determined mostly by size and age. Fighting within the male ranks takes place in several different ways. A “nod threat” is when two males approach each other closely with their heads turned sideways, and then both will nod their heads up and down until one attack or submits. Bulls will also swing the long hairs on their forelegs and beards to threaten another. If two bulls come face to face in a threatening manner, turning the head slowly sideways indicates submission and ends the dispute. The winner will not attack a voluntary submitter. Usually only about one in ten encounters leads to an actual fight. To threaten one another, Bulls will bellow, stamp their hooves and snort loudly, and approach each other with their tails high. If they do engage in a fight, Bulls will run together, clash heads, then push upwards with heads held low trying to gain leverage on their opponent. The short horns of the males are used to gore their opponent after head clashing and these attacks produce significant injuries. Bison have an acute sense of smell and very strong eyesight which allow for recognition of potential predators and time to prepare for any defensive actions. Due to their overwhelming size, Buffalo are not preyed upon by anything in the natural world expect for bears, wolves (usually in packs,) and the occasional mountain lion. Usually any Buffalo being preyed upon is old, sick, or injured.
Other herd dynamics observed comes in many forms. Female herds follow similar linear dominance hierarchies their male counterparts. Calves engage in play fighting, with head butting only in an upright position, not lowered as in adult males, mounting one another, and wallowing. The female portion of the herd takes the lead when grazing, while the male portion follows. Bison communicate by hearing and smell. The most important communication is done with pheromones and smells, especially during reproduction using urine. Other sounds such as grunts, growling, and snorts all indicate different things. The sound of a Bison in full bellow can be heard for three miles. Bison’s also rub their horns on trees and other objects just as deer and elk do. Activity is heavier in the early morning and again in the late afternoon. Aside from their amazing land speed for their size, Bison are also excellent swimmers and can jump over objects as high as a fence.
Winter in Yellowstone
Buffalo Hide Tipi
Relationship with Native Americans
All of these observances and more were possible because of the efforts of many, started by a few. When these early conservationists and ranchers make the decision to help these animals, they really had no idea of the long history and relationship between Native Americans and the Bison. Movies and stories always show plains Indians hunting buffalo and the event has been romanticized and glamorized beyond its real truths. The truth was that the Plains Indians lived a similar migratory life, following the herds for thousands of years. The buffalo was the ultimate and single most important resource in their lives, providing food with their meat, warmth and shelter with their thick hides, tools were fashioned from their bones, and a form of rope from their sinews. No part of the animal was wasted by these people and there was no killing for sport or trophy taking.
John Fire Lame Deer
Lame Deer Seeker of Vision
John Fire Lame Deer (1903-1976,) a Mineconju-Lakota Sioux holy man was born on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is well known for his wise words and has been quoted many times in his book, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (John Fire Lame Deer & Richard Erdoes, published 1972 by Simon & Schuster.) He sums up the relationship between his people and the buffalo in the following quote:
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women's awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar.”
Native Americans used the entire animal
Great White Buffalo
Spiritual Meaning to Native Americans
The Buffalo was considered by many tribes as the symbol of abundance and manifestation, with their strong grounded bodies and large heads (thought to represent higher intelligence.) Their humps were viewed as energy centers and their herd dynamics showed unity and family strength, such as how the strong would surround the weak or fallen for protection and defense. Native Buffalo wisdom includes Earth Creativity, Abundance, Knowledge, Hospitality, Strength, Survival, and many other tenants. The Native American shared the land with the Buffalo and in lore the Buffalo is referred to as the Great Mother, giving of herself so that many others might live.
The Bison spirt animal totem symbolizes the need for change, adaptation, and endurance. If you choose to call upon the great spirit of the Bison for spiritual guidance, you will feel the ground shake with the thunderous hooves pounding the hard soil, you will sense the shaking of the herd moving free across the plains without boundaries, you will sense the great strength and power of the majestic beasts as they surround you with the echoes of the past and a foreshadow of what could be. You are immersed in the power of everything and if the mighty Bison accepts you, you shall be anointed with the blood of the fallen and taken into the clan of the mighty Bison.
As the power of the Bison was so revered in the Native tribes, so were the stories and tales that followed. In one myth, buffalo spirits brought sacred knowledge about medicine and peace pipes to humankind. The hump on the buffalo was storied to be a punishment for recklessness and served as a lesson. There are also many cautionary tales in which buffalo hunts are unsuccessful or result in hunters' deaths because people have failed to respect the buffalo properly. But perhaps the most heard of tale is that of the Great White Buffalo. On rare occasions a buffalo calf would be born with white fur and those animals were considered sacred by the Native Americans. The White Buffalo Calf Woman was a Lakota tale about a beautiful woman who taught the Lakota people the secrets to the mysteries of the earth before turning into a white buffalo calf. The story has been told for thousands of years and is an example of the enduring importance of the buffalo in Native American culture.
White Buffalo Calf Woman
The American Bison Today
The history of the Bison is expansive and the stories many more than a single work could contain. The one clear thread that connects all of the dots is the importance of these animals across time and cultures and nations. There were many horrific abuses and senseless slaughter in the late 1800s and still the Bison remains as an important iconic animal in our art, stories, and symbolism. Most of the animals left in North America are held in a state of open-range captivity with a handful still roaming free in certain areas. Wild populations are now limited national parks and refuges and there are Bison in public zoos across the country. A large herb of Bison lives in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, also they are found in the National Bison Range in the Flathead Valley of Montana, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma, the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nebraska, Sully’s Hill National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern North Dakota, Walnut Creek National Wildlife Refuge in central Iowa and the Wood Buffalo National Park in Northwest Territory, Canada.
Today’s Bison aren’t the same as the wild herds which roamed the nation hundreds of years ago. Some Bison were bred with cattle to produce better meat in the early conservation years, thus forever changing the animals DNA. These hybrid animals make up about 96% of all Bison currently alive on the continent. The true wild Bison are mostly found in the National Parks mentioned above. Bison is also more in demand as a food source for today’s consumer as their meat is more nutritious than beef or chicken. This demand will ensure that the herds are managed and developed over time. Yet the focus by the meat industry has little or no impact on the true wild Buffalo left.
Bison Herd on the Move
Yellowstone National Park Herd Management
Yellowstone National Park is perhaps the only place left in America where Bison have lived uninterrupted for thousands of years. What makes this, the nation’s largest herd, unique is that the animals are all natural and are allowed to roam free over the entire expanse of the park’s 3500 square miles. These animals live their lives just as their ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is estimated that the herd numbers over 5,000 currently. The park management has faced bad press and scrutiny for its herd management programs over the years and they involve culling animals. Shortly the public and tribal treaty hunting season in Montana will remove 300 to 400 bison, while another 500 to 600 bison could be shipped to meat processing or research facilities following capture. On November 18th, 2015 an announcement was made that officials plan on slaughtering 1000 animals this winter-mostly females and calves-from the herd this winter. The rationale for the cull is to lessen the risk of Yellowstone bison infecting cattle herds in Montana with brucellosis, a bacterial disease, when they move north. This proposed plan would be the largest cull since the winter of 2007-2008, when more than 1,600 were killed. As of this summer, there were 4,900 bison in the park, and officials are hoping to bring that number closer to 3,000. Yet, only two days later, the management softened their stance on the slaughter and pushed back the dates for the proposed capture and kill. This change came as a direct dispute from interested parties and unwanted media attention.
The herd has been managed by culls since 2000 when the state of Montana and the federal government reached an agreement to annually decrease the herd to prevent the spread of brucellosis, a European livestock disease originally introduced by cows and first detected in Yellowstone buffalo dating back to 1917 when milk from infected cattle was fed to buffalo. Montana ranchers say the cull is necessary because bison who roam outside of the park infect their cows with brucellosis, which causes miscarriages during calving. Those opposed to the culling make several valid points mainly that Elk and other animals also carry the same disease and they are not regulated or culled. There is also a strong push for development of a vaccine to deal with the problem instead of the current method. As long as the wild buffalo are being managed by a state livestock department, the annual battles will continue.
The American Bison will continue to represent much to many. It is one of the defining spirits of our nation. It holds secrets of our past and hope for our future. They are as majestic as they are curious looking and the closer you stand next to one, the more you feel their raw power. They are the inspiration for thousands of paintings, statues, and prints. The Bison once graced our currency, cities and towns are named after them, and even a football team. The stories shared in the sweat lodges and ceremonial fires of the Native Americans keep the spiritual power of the buffalo alive. What was once almost lost will most certainly remain found, today and forever.
Yellowstone Bison Herd Management
- Yellowstone Bison - Yellowstone National Park (U.S. National Park Service)
Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison (Bison bison) have lived continuously since prehistoric times.
I was inspired to write the piece as a direct result of the annual Bison Slaughter in Yellowstone National Park. As an Idaho resident, the news stories are frequent and its the local communities of native Americans and concerned citizens that are speaking up to defend these animals from unnecessary premature deaths. I feel its important to preserve the wild Bison for many reasons, but mostly because mankind owes it to the species, after all, it was our ancestors that nearly drove them to extinction.
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Thank you for taking the time to read this work.
© 2015 Ralph Schwartz