Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The word “buffalo” may be a familiar name used to describe North America’s largest land mammal, but it isn’t entirely accurate. In truth, the animal that is forever tied to the American Indian and the Wild West and appeared on the tail side of the Indian Head nickel is the bison. If you’re looking for live buffalo, the only ones you’ll find on this continent are the imported types that are housed in zoos.
The bison gained its status as the largest land mammal at the end of the last Ice Age. Bison that had earlier been restricted to Asia began to spread east into North America via the newly exposed Bering land bridge. They weren’t the only animals moving, of course: mammoths, mastodons, dire wolves, and saber-toothed tigers shared their journey. But these larger animals died out until only the American bison remained.
Through the centuries, bison herds settled in Canada’s British Columbia and Alberta provinces as well as much of the United States. With their ability to adapt to new surroundings and their great size protecting them from most predators, bison numbers increased until, by the 1800s, anywhere from 30 million to 70 million of them were living in North America.
It wasn’t until the westward expansion across the continent that the wholesale killing of bison began. It took only a hundred years to reduce those millions of bison to approximately 1,500. Before that time, American Indians had hunted and subsisted on bison, but they killed only what they would use and eat.
Settlers who migrated west did not have bad intentions for the bison and certainly didn’t slaughter herds in order to wipe out the species. With so many bison, they couldn’t even imagine that such a thing was possible. But as the number of immigrants increased, so did the need for food. The population of towns and cities grew rapidly, and bison that were once killed only for local consumption were eventually slaughtered in huge numbers so that the meat and hides could be sent to distant markets.
Many market hunters were very wasteful. They might chase hundreds of bison over a cliff to their deaths. The bodies below weren’t skinned and cleaned to obtain the maximum amount of meat, as were those killed by Americans Indians. These hunters took only the best cuts of meat, and those that were easiest to access. Frequently, more bison were killed than could be used. Even then, a substantial percentage of the meat that was sent east spoiled before it could reach market.
Sport hunters didn’t even try to justify their slaughter. They considered shooting at bison to be great fun, since these big animals made easy targets. Fortunately, today’s hunters have far higher standards.
Bison first achieved legal protection within Yellowstone National Park, but that certainly wasn’t sufficient. In 1905 the American Bison Society began a national movement to preserve the bison. Their attention was centered on lands within the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana that were about to be opened up and offered for sale. It took a request from President Theodore Roosevelt followed by an act of Congress to have the lands purchased and held instead. That area was designated the National Bison Range in 1908. In addition, several established state and national parks with enough space and appropriate habitat for the beasts became places of refuge.
Individual ranchers also deserve a share of the credit for bringing bison back by raising herds on their own land. Protection and repopulation has worked. From the tragically small gene pool of 1,500 individual animals alive in the late 1800s, American bison numbers have increased to more than 350,000 animals today.
No one with an ounce of sanity would approach a bison in the wild, especially considering the size of these animals. A mature male bison can reach a height of 5 to 6 feet at its hump with an overall length of 7 to 11 feet, and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. Come face-to-face with a bison and you’d be staring at an enormous block of muscle, hide, hooves, and horns.
Anyone silly enough to arouse such a beast would quickly find out just how fast it can run, in spite of its enormous size. Sooner or later, you’d face a pair of horns designed for defending against wolves, and other predators. You may not think of yourself as a potential predator, but that’s the way a bison sees you.
During the summer mating season, bison herds move about restlessly, interested in something more engrossing than grazing. “Bull roarings” are audible day and night as bison bulls challenge each other in the rutting ritual of mating. As one writer put it, “When bison rut, the plains tremble.” Their collective voice can be heard for miles. Mating requires considerable patience on the part of the bulls, since each female gives lengthy consideration to which male will father her offspring.
Whereas bison indulge in wallowing “” rolling on the ground from side to side “” before and after breeding season to groom, they do so in a frenzy before mating to lay down their scent and displace aggression. They use already-existing depressions in the land, or at least areas with plenty of loose soil like that of a prairie dog town. The bulls bellow as they fold their massive bodies to the ground, roll over on their sides, and begin kicking up dust.
Bison bulls are unable to turn completely on their backs to wallow. The series of bony spines that protrude from the bison’s backbone and hold its hump in place make lying belly-up as impractical as it is painful. Still, a bull can shuffle up a major amount of dirt during a single breeding season, deepening the wallow with each succeeding generation of bison.
Wallows become deep enough to hold considerable rainfall and, as a result, become a major source of water for bison as well as other prairie animals. The deepest wallows “” more than a century old “” still provide homes for water-loving creatures when filled with water. Thus, even though the enormous herds are long gone, migrating birds can still drop down to feed and water in the wallows. Most of the paddlers move on, but some remain to mate and raise their own young. They probably never see their benefactors, but prairie wildlife reap the benefits of bison habits.