“[T]he country in every direction around us was one vast plain in which innumerable herds of Buffalow were seen attended by their shepherds, the wolves; the solitary antelope which now had their young were distributed over its face; some herds of elk were also seen.” — Meriwether Lewis.
Description: The legendary American Bison is the largest mammal found on the continent of North America. It is easily identified by its massive front quarters and tapered hind quarters. The American Bison has a shaggy mane that extends from its head to midsection and that hangs down to the knees over its front legs. The rest of its body is largely bare. Bison (often called buffalo) have short white horns on the head. Males can measure 12 feet long and weigh over 2,400 pounds.
Diet/Range/Habitat: The American Bison typically consumes about 30 pounds of grass per day. Bison inhabit the Great Plains of the United States and forage in prairies and open woodlands. Bison are highly migratory and will roam the plains in search of new sources of food. Bison have few natural enemies except humans, wolf packs, and Grizzly Bears.
Behavior/Young: Bison are highly social animals. Females travel in herds of sixty or more, while males travel in small groups, or by themselves. Male bison have no part in raising calves. Females have gestation periods of about 280-290 days. Buffalo calves can run three hours after birth. Calves stay with their mothers for three years. Females are aggressive toward threats to calves. The grazing and traveling of bison herds enables the growth of certain native prairie grasses.
Notes/History: The American Bison is one of the most storied animals in American history. Sioux Indians were completely dependent on the animals and organized their lives around the movements of buffalo herds. They used buffalo hides to build their mobile tepees, made pemmican (beef jerky) out of buffalo meat, built tools from the bones of buffalo, made sleds from buffalo ribs and even used buffalo dropping for fuel. Indians often hunted bison by dressing up as wolves and leading them to stampedes over cliffs. When the plains and western territories were settled by Americans, they took a great toll on bison populations. The great herds that existed before settlements were decimated to a fraction of those numbers until the American Bison became an endangered species. An estimated 70 million bison that once roamed North America from Canada to Mexico was reduced to 355 individuals in 1883. Today, several wild herds exist on parts of the Great Plains, but their numbers will never be the same before the west was settled. One herd in Yellowstone National Park numbers about 3,000 animals. Buffalo herds face the continuous threat of shrinking prairie habitats and illegal shooting.