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The great American bison

They show up on old nickels, on the backs of quarters and on flags. They surface in burgers and jerky, in the logos of sports teams and universities and in the names of towns and cities.

A 2008 survey conducted by the Wilderness Conservation Society revealed that, while 74 percent of Americans polled agreed that bison are “extremely important living symbols of the American West,” and more than half agreed that bison are important symbols of our country as a whole, fewer than 10 percent had any idea how many bison are left in the country. Eighty-three percent of survey subjects believed that bison meat “was good or better than beef,” but only 40 percent had actually tried it. It’s hard to live in this part of the world without being a little bit familiar with the American bison, but how far beyond familiar does our knowledge extend?

1. Bison are big, powerful creatures.

The average American bison – commonly referred to as the American buffalo — stands 5 to 6.5 feet tall and can weigh more than a ton. Despite that heft, bison can run at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour and execute standing jumps of up to 6 feet in the air. Yellowstone National Park warns its visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from all wild bison, and for good reason. These lumbering vegetarians have injured more Yellowstone tourists than any other animal in the park.

The bison’s wild temperament and legendary stubbornness have frustrated more than a few wannabe wranglers. “You can herd a buffalo anywhere he wants to go” goes the saying among farmers and ranchers familiar with these imposing animals.

2. Once upon a time, bison roamed in huge herds across the wilds of the United States and Canada.

The American bison, the largest land animal native to North America, prospered in the open grasslands of this country for centuries. Scientists estimate that there were more than 30 million bison in North America when the first European settlers arrived on the continent, grazing a vast range which ran from northern Canada to northern Mexico and from western New York to eastern Washington.

“The amazing herds of buffaloes which resort thither, by their size and number, fill the traveller with amazement and terror,” wrote John Filson in 1784 of herds in northern Kentucky. The journals of Lewis and Clark described western herds “so numerous” that they “darkened the whole plains.”

As late as 1871, a young soldier named George Anderson described an “enormous” herd of bison in Kansas which took he and his men six days to pass through. “I am safe in calling this a single herd,” he wrote, “and it is impossible to approximate the millions that composed it.”

3. But the bison was practically extinct by the end of the 19th century.

A fatal combination of events came together against the bison in the second half of the 19th century. American Indian tribes acquired horses and guns and were able to kill bison in larger numbers than ever before. A drought dried out the animals’ grassland habitat, which was already overburdened by new populations of horses and cattle. Farmers and ranchers began killing bison to make room for their animals. Some soldiers killed bison to spite their American Indian enemies, who depended on the animals for food and clothing.

Railroads were laid through the bison’s territory, dividing herds and accelerating the arrival of hunters, whose kills fed the high demand for bison hides back East and in Europe. Sport shooters traveled west to shoot the animals by the dozens, sometimes from the open windows of moving trains, and often left their bodies out on the plains to rot once the hunt was over.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were only several hundred bison left in North America.

4. Today’s bison aren’t exactly the animals they used to be.

The efforts of early 20th century organizations like the American Bison Society, headed by zoologist William Hornaday and former president Theodore Roosevelt, were able to rescue the bison from its impending extinction. Today’s bison population is higher than 500,000 and steadily growing.

According to Texas A&M professor of veterinary pathobiology Dr. James Derr, though, most bison alive today are genetically different from their wild ancestors. At the low point of the bison population – what geneticists call the “bottleneck” – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ranchers who owned a lot of the remaining bison population bred their bison with cattle in an attempt to create better meat animals. “When people went looking for bison later,” said Derr, “they had to go to the private guys who owned them, and in many cases those private guys had been producing hybrids.”

Derr has spent the past several decades analyzing bison DNA to determine which herds contain cattle genes, and believes that only about 1.6 percent of today’s bison population (8,000 animals) is not hybridized.

And today’s bison don’t roam the plains like they used to, either. Only about 20,000 bison – 4 percent of the overall population – make up the wild herds that graze our national parks and private reserves. The other 96 percent are livestock animals, raised commercially for meat and hides.

5. Americans are eating more bison.

Buffalo. It's what's for breakfast in Virgin, Utah. Photo: Catherine Quayle

In this era of buying local, supporting sustainable agriculture, and eating healthy, bison meat is showing up on more and more American dinner tables. Bison are native food animals which process North American grasses more efficiently than cattle. They aren’t treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and their meat contains less fat, less cholesterol, and more nutrients than beef, pork or chicken.

The growing demand for these animals’ meat has created a nationwide “bison boom” which has left many bison producers scrambling to expand their herds as meat prices soar. According to the National Bison Association, the number of bison processed in North America doubled between 2005 and 2009. Last year was the most profitable year on record for the bison industry.

But while it might look like bison is on its way to becoming a mainstream meat, these numbers are all relative: the number of bison processed in North America in 2009, about 92,000, is close to the number of cattle processed in this country every day.


  • Gailrcampbell

    The buffalo narrative neglects to point out that killing off the buffalo herds was official US Government policy in order to essentially kill off Native Americans by depriving them of their most important meat source.

  • Jed

    While some scholars agree with you, I and others have not been able to find definitive proof that the US Government ever ordered the killing of bison with the intention of hurting American Indian populations.

    The Army consumed enormous amounts of bison in the late 1800s because it was the dominant food source on the plains where US soldiers pursued the last “rebellious” native tribes. It is true that some soldiers, bored and frustrated, shot the animals for sport, but there is actually evidence of soldiers being reprimanded by their higher-ups for doing so.

    Some recorded comments from the time — Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano’s 1874 declaration that declining bison populations were facilitating the government’s mission to force American Indians to “adopt the habits of civilization,” for example — suggest that the US government didn’t mind seeing the bison disappear and understood what that meant for their native enemies. As reprehensible as that may be, it still does not constitute the kind of targeted, government-mandated bison slaughter that you describe in your comment.

    The damning quote which typically reinforces your argument is Gen. Sheridan’s supposed statement to the Texas legislature that bison hunters “have done . . . more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary.” I had hoped to use that quote in this piece but found, as I attempted to source it, that it was most likely invented by a later historian. Even if that language was Sheridan’s, it reveals nothing more than the General’s personal support for private hunters.

    A review of US Government policy toward the bison, as related to American Indians and otherwise, reveals more consistent greed, apathy, and short-sightedness than active attempts at extermination. To me, at least, that’s a whole lot scarier.


  • Anonymous

    The bison I have seen in parks in th US are larger than mentioned in this Article. A large male is around 9 feet at the top of the sholder hump. females are smaller. A large bulls head is bigger than many people.

  • Dobygreen

    Indians were not always as conservative as we are told by the legend establishing picture of the Indians as using only what they needed.  When I lived up Elk Creek out of New Castle, Colorado, there was evidence of bison having been run over a precipice, falling to their deaths as evidenced by quite a few bison skulls remaining from unused animals.  The prairie, as its original
    conditions were, has been altered by people to the point that there is only one percent of the prairie as it had evolved to be the complex system that it was until plowed for uni-crops and the eventual extermination of the already
    “living on the edge with very special requirements” that it was.   There have been too many evidences of man playing  god in the world.  Overpopulation
    is bringing us to the extremes of disruption that we seem, in our super-intelligent beings, to not be able to fugure out how to realize limitations in our
    lives. Doby Green

  • Smith

    Native Americans were actually the only ones who killed Bison and actually used every single part of the body. They see the bison as an animal critical to their survival and a partner. Once Americans began to hunt the Bison for fun, and collected their heads to place it as trophies on their walls, the Native Americans could no longer sustain themselves. Bison are a huge part of Native American’s culture and tradition, when a bison was found dead and rotting, they would decorate its body with flowers and dance around it in order to guide its soul back into the mountains where they believed the bison came from. The decline of the buffalo meant the decline of the Native Americans.

  • less

    When Teddy Roosevelt heard that the bison was on the edge of extinction the first thing he did was board a train and go kill one himself. Many others did the same.  

  • Gino Pimental

    Whenever i read/hear of historical documents about Native American culture, I can’t help but comment that it’s the settler’s fault that the Native American culture has decreased. the settlers were greedy & selfish. Honestly, I wish that all land in America were still plains, mountains, and tundras without any industrialization. looking at today’s growing economy, we’re going to push ourselves into the ocean. And soon, there won’t be anymore land. -GLP

  • Brian Barber

    Show me documentation of a living bison that is 9′ tall at the hump and I will pay your car insurance for a year.

  • Woods and Water

    mold board plowing destroyed the plains…and caused the dust bowl…bison are the natural animal here, not cattle…they are unnatural…and are fattened on GMO corn in feed lots.

    Modern cattle are divided into two species: Bos taurus, which originated in Europe and includes most modern breeds of dairy and beef cattle, and Bos indicus, which originated in India and is characterized by a hump at the withers.

  • :Lizzy

    Where do they Live?!

  • Glacier

    The native americans drove whole herds in the thousands over cliffs so they could butcher 50 to a 100.. They were not always the conservationists that we have romanticised them to be.. Back when the Bison were hunted to near extinction it was wasnt so that they could put the head on their wall. it was for their hides and toungues. Modern hunters do more to preserve the animals than all of the animal rights wack jobs combined.

  • glacier

    And yet it was Roosevelt that led the charge to save the last of the bison.. For the most part hunting an animal creates a respect for the animal that no other activity can. That of course is different that the wanton killing that occured during the late 1800′s.

  • isoteman

    He doesnt have a car