Perhaps no other animal symbolizes the West as dramatically as the American bison. In prehistoric times millions of these
animals roamed the North American Continent from the Great Slave Lake in northern Canada, south into Mexico and from coast
to coast. No one knows how many bison there were, but the naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton, estimated their numbers at sixty
million when Columbus landed. They were part of the largest community of wild animals that the world has ever known.
Bison are part of the family Bovidae, to which cattle and goats belong. They are not in the same family that Asian and
African buffalo are. However, because they resembled these old world animals, the early explorers called them by that name.
Although it is a misnomer, the name buffalo is still used interchangeably with bison. One of the physical differences between
the old world buffalo and the American bison is the large shoulder hump of the bison. This hump, along with a broad, massive
head, short, thick neck and small hindquarters give the animal its rugged appearance.
The color and character of the bison's fur varies with the season. A mature bull in winter has a dark brown to black coat.
The length of the hair measures up to sixteen inches on the forehead, ten inches on the forelegs, and only eight inches on
the hindquarters. No wonder the bison, unlike domestic cattle, face into storms.
The best description of a bison's temperament is UNPREDICTABLE. They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy,
yet they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent reason. To a casual observer, a grazing bison appears slow
and clumsy, but he can outrun, out turn, and traverse rougher terrain than all but the fleetest horse. They can move at speeds
of up to thirty-five miles per hour and cover long distances at a lumbering gallop.
Their most obvious weapon is the horns that both male and female have. But their head, with its massive skull, can be
used as a battering ram, effectively using the momentum produced by two thousand pounds moving at thirty miles per hour! The
hind legs can also be used to kill or maim with devastating effect. At the time bison ran wild, they were rated second only
to the Alaska brown bear as a potential killer, more dangerous than the grizzly bear. In the words of early naturalists, they
were a dangerous, savage animal who feared no other animal and in prime condition could best any foe. A bull with lowered
head, snorting and pawing the ground, with tail stiffly upraised, conveys a universal warning of danger to all nearby that
is impossible to ignore!
The rutting, or mating, season lasts from June through September with peak activity in July and August. At this time,
the older bulls rejoin the herd and fights often take place between bulls. The herd exhibits much restlessness during breeding
season the animals are belligerent, unpredictable and most dangerous.
Calves, born nine to nine and one-half months later in April or May, generally weigh thirty to seventy pounds. They have
reddish-brown fur and do not have the conspicuous hump of the adult. After a few months, the fur begins to change to chocolate
brown and the hump begins to develop.
Other activities of the bison include rubbing, rolling, and wallowing. Wallowing creates a saucer-like depression called
a wallow. This wallow was once a common feature of the plains; usually these wallows are dust bowls without any vegetation.
Bison have poor eyesight but acute hearing and an excellent sense of smell. The sounds they make range from a pig-like
grunt to an aggressive bellow.