At home on the range you can find the buffalo roaming in North America, but the first thing you should know and remember about buffalo is that they aren't. Scientists say that true buffalo are found only in the Southeast Asian and African parts of the world.
Largest of the mammals native to North America is the bison, a beast not to be mistaken with buffalo. Zoologists in the know say that the bison of the prairie are equipped with 14 pairs of ribs whereas the buffalo have 13.
North America, between the Rockie and Appalachian Mountains, was once home to herds of bison of enormous number. An estimate sets that number at 60 millions when Columbus landed. In the Amon Carter Museum at Fort Worth, Texas, there is a painting by William J. Hays (1862) entitled The Herd on the Move; it shows a huge herd of bison flowing down the surrounding hills into a wide valley, with the leaders advancing out of the picture towards the viewer, like a flash-flood of brown life. A similar theme is depicted in a picture hanging in the Thomas Gilcrease Museum of American History and Art at Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Bison had three main predators to contend with:
Indians living on the plains thought the bison to be inexhaustible, though they never had certain knowledge of where grazing herds would be at any time. Medicine Men tapped into the spirit world for help locating the bison.
In ancient times, the Plains Indians hunted bison on foot. Sometimes they would disguise themselves in wolf's clothing to enable them to stalk within striking distance of the animals. Healthy bison have no fear of wolves or bears, safe in the knowledge that they can outrun any danger. Bison have poor vision but acute hearing and sense of smell
Indians used flint tipped lances or arrows to kill bison. Key to success is to strike strong and deep into the bison just before the short ribs. If blood flows from the mouth the Brave could be certain the beast would die leaving him to move on to the next victim. At butchering time the identity of the Brave to whom the kill belonged was made known by special marks on the arrow or lance.
When Spanish explorers arrived they brought with them horses. Indians were quick to understand the use of these new beasts, catching feral horses and stealing them from the Spanish, Indians became adept horsemen enabled over short distances to run down stampeding bison. Again the Braves would ride in as close as possible to their victim before loosing their arrows from short bows not more than 3 feet (1 metre) long. As soon as the horses heard the twang of the bowstring, they were trained to sheer away, carrying the rider to safety. Indians always attacked on the bison's right flank to enable bow shot to the left. Usually, each Brave would trail a rawhide strap from his horse to grab when he became unseated, fallen to the ground.
Bows and arrows continued to be the favoured hunting weapon when muskets became available because a Brave could fire many arrows to each musket shot; also, muzzle loading a musket is a bit tricky while trying to sit a fast moving horse. Repeating firearms caused the bow and arrow to fall into disuse.
When it comes to killing bison, bears and wolves are no competition to man.
Bears will take bison that are sick or otherwise infirm, and though bears can move swiftly they are not swift enough to catch a running bison that is healthy.
Bison on the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve are not threatened as there are no bears living there.
Wolves hunt bison, wandering through a herd making trial runs at likely looking bison to identify those animals in condition poor enough to be run down and eaten. Wolves employ the same methods when living on caribou.
As with the bears, bison on the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve are not threatened by wolves as there are none.
Decline of the bison began with the arrival of European settlers, a decline that accelerated with expansion to the west. Bison and Native Americans were no match for modern science and technology. As a version of the once popular song says: The red man was pressed from this part of the West. Ploughs ripped up the prairie vegetation on which the bison depend. Railways brought dwellers in cities on excursions to shoot at bison from the comfort of well-appointed carriages. Trade brought goods valuable and attractive to Native Americans who helped slaughter bison to feed the tanning industries with hide and epicurean delight for delicacies such as the tongue, all of which left innumerable carcasses to rot where once every part had been used.
Bison have been hunted for more than 12,000 years. As with over-fishing of the seas today, over-hunting then brought the bison close to extinction. With bison on the brink, so went the Native American to the mercy of the conquering civilisation and its wasteful extravagance. Fate of the bison and Native American tribes was repeated in the next century farther north in Canada with the caribou and Inuit, in both cases brought about by the destructive catalyst Western Civilisation; no doubt to be repeated for it seems we in our wisdom rarely learn from history and our past mistakes.
'By 1888, only 541 bison remained in the US. Efforts began to prevent the species from becoming extinct. William Temple Hornday (1854-1937), an American zoologist, had a significant influence on the efforts to protect and increase the herds.'
'A 1905 census indicated there were 835 wild bison and 256 bison in captivity at that time. Sanctuaries, zoos, and parks were safe havens for bison and helped to increase their numbers. Subsequent game laws and other protective measures allowed the surviving bison to live and multiply. Today, about 150,000 bison live in the US. Large herds can be found in many natural areas, parks, and refuges, but the majority of the bison are found on private ranches.'
'The American bison is the largest of native North American land mammals, outweighing its closest rivals, the moose and the big brown Kodiak bear. When giant marine mammals are included in the rankings, bison are surpassed only by the whales and an occasional bull walrus. Bison are members of the cattle family and are referred to as ungulates because of their cloven hooves.'
'Bison are social animals and live in herds that change in size and composition throughout the year, In winter, herds are much smaller, typically only 20 to 30 in number, with older bulls completely isolating themselves. During the mating season in summer, bison gather in very large herds. Herds are definitely matriarchal with cows usually leading herd movement.'
'Bulls weigh from 1,600 to 2,000 pounds (726 to 907 kilos), stand between 5.5 and 6.5 feet (1.7 to 2.0 metres) high at the shoulder, and measure from 9.5 to 11.5 feet (2.9 to 3.5 metres) in total length including the tail. Bulls seldom live longer than 20 years but, in rare cases, may live to be 40 years old.'
'The cow is smaller, weighing up to 1,100 pounds (499 kilos), although most weigh about 900 pounds (408 kilos). They stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet (1.4 to 1.7 metres) in height at the shoulder, and are less than 10 feet (3 metres) in length. Less shaggy on the head and chin, she has a smaller hump and her horns are more slender and curved than the bull's.'
'A bison's coat attains prime condition during the winter months, then sloughs off in clumps during the annual molt in spring. The biggest chunks come from the hump and shoulders, where fur is two to five times thicker than the hair on the hindquarters. This difference in thickness accentuates the hunchback shape. The hair on the forelegs, throat, chin, crown, and forehead reaches surprising lengths, especially on older animals. The longest masses, dangling from between the horns and upper forehead, have been known to grow to 22 inches (56 centimetres).'
'The rutting season, which varies slightly from north to south, begins about mid-June and wanes towards the end of September. Heifers typically first breed at 2 years of age and calve at 3. Calves are usually born in April or May after a gestation period of 9.5 months. Cows are able to produce calves until they are about 15 to 20 years old.'
A bull can tell when a cow is in prime breeding condition from the smell or taste of her urine.
'Like domestic cattle, bison are grazers. However, they prefer young, tender grasses and do not eat forbs1. They walk along biting off mouthfuls of grass barely chewing it before swallowing. Cud-chewing occurs later in the day when the hastily swallowed grass is brought up, portion by portion, to be broken down more completely in a second chewing. Feeding mainly in the early morning and late afternoon, bison normally rest and chew their cud during midday and at night. Not less than 99-percent of a bison's diet is grass. Adult bison consume more than 30 pounds of grass each day. The bison's appetite for young trees helped prevent trees from invading the prairie. When necessary, bison will travel a long way to find water; however, they can go for long periods without it.'
'Wallowing is practiced by both sexes and all age classes. Wallows are usually in dry areas, but wet areas may be used. This behaviour seems to be important in grooming, sensory stimulation, alleviating skin irritation, and reproductive behaviour. Dust, which packs into the hair after wallowing, probably minimizes the effects of insects'
'Wallows also serve a purpose in the prairie ecosystem. On flat terrain they serve as water reservoirs. These small ponds become available to vertebrates and invertebrates for multiple uses and may enhance growth of specific vegetation needing moist or wet habitat. Wallowing behaviour also transports soils and seeds to other areas because the thick fur on the head and forequarters is ideal for dispersal of awned, barbed, and sticky materials.'
'Bison aren't serious all the time. Young bison are thought to play. Play is manifested by seemingly purposeless frolicking, including chasing, battling, butting, kicking, and racing. Such activity aids muscle development and coordination important later in life.'
Gary Paulsen in his book Winterdance2, about running the Iditarod, reports stopping along the way to watch bison disporting upon an ice slide. Several bison were taking turns to run from the shore to slide out onto a frozen lake while slowly turning with legs splayed, snorting in amusement. Also, refer to Marc Bekoff's article Virtuous Nature published in New Scientist, volume 175, issue 2351, dated 13 July 2002, about the rôle of play among animals, especially the young.
'Although bison have a keen sense of smell, their eyesight is poor. They maintain contact with one another by uttering hog-like grunts. Bison are ordinarily mild-mannered, even dull, animals but can be aggressive. Threat postures, which may be a prelude to fighting, include a snort or a growling, gutteral bellow with head up, mouth wide open, and tail erect. Head these warnings.'
In recent times a Fool drove out onto the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in his truck and came across some bison blocking the road. He took it into his head to chase the bison to see how fast they could run. A bull becaming tired of this harrassment turned on and charged the pursuing truck. When the man failed to return a search party was sent out; he was found sitting by his overturned and badly mangled vehicle.
Bison can run at and sustain speeds of up to 35 mph (56 kph). When a herd stampedes, observers have described the effect as prairie thunder. Active animals can jump 6 feet (2 metres) vertically and more than 7 feet (2.1 metres) horizontally; which is why, at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve the containment fences are much higher than would be normal for cattle and why the bisonguards in the roads are 14 feet (4.3 metres) wide. Bisonguards are double the standard width of cattleguards. Bison are powerful swimmers, navigating with all but hump, muzzle, and top of the head submerged.
Bison are more liable to suffer emotional stress than cattle. Cowboys have learned not to yodel Yip-Yippey-Yi-Ohs when rounding up bison, as it is customary to do when driving cattle.
'Bison are subject to the same diseases as cattle but in the wild seem to be amazingly free of disease. No serious epidemics have been reported in present-day animals. Some animal breeders have tried to develop a hardy, useful kind of domestic animal by crossing American bison with ordinary cattle. The cattaloes or beefaloes that result have not proven satisfactory, primarily due to infertility problems.'
'Based on genetic analysis, bison have been reclassified from the genus Bison into Bos. Bos now includes all wild cattle and the domestic Bos taurus. There are three sub-species of bison'
- Bos bison bison - plains bison.
- Bos bison athabascae - wood bison.
- Bos bison bonasus - European wisent (endangered).
Research by scientists tells us, until proven otherwise, that the modern bison has ancestors as listed here:
- Bison priscus - steppe wisent of Europe and Siberia hunted by Cro-Magnon man, a huge beast3.
- Bison latifrons - 50-percent larger than our modern bison with horns spanning 7 to 9 feet (2.1 to 2.7 metres).
- Bison antiquus - hunted by Folsom man approximately 10,000 years ago.
- Bison occidentalis - a large plains bison.
- Bos bison - our modern bison.
Facts and figures presented in this article are drawn from source material provided to docents of the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve by The Nature Conservancy for dissemination to the public. Descriptive information presented here is a synthesis from a variety of unidentified sources.