The bison or American bison is a North American mammal in the family of cave horned animals (Bovidae). The French explorer Samuel de Champlain named the animal “buffalo” in 1625, derived from the French word boeuf for bovine. The scientific name of the species was published as Bos bison in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus. The Old World wisent (or European bison) is a closely related species.
The animal is heavily built with a high shoulder hump, a large heavy head, a short thick neck and a broad forehead. Head, neck, shoulders and front legs are long and shaggy-haired. The rest of the body is covered with shorter and lighter hair. The chin contains a feral beard. The animal has a shoulder height of 1.90 meters and the length of the bull is almost 3 meters. The tail length is 30 to 60 cm. The bison can reach a speed of up to 50 mph.
The character of the bison is usually calm and easily predicted by the posture of the tail. A posture in which the tail is straight up shows that the bison feels threatened. For interactions with humans, this is usually the last signal before the bison proceeds to charge.
American bison live to be about 25 years old. Their brown to black fur consists of two layers: a warm inner layer and a thick, protective outer layer. This thick coat is no luxury, as they are also found in mountainous areas, where they are exposed to extremely low temperatures. Young of the American bison stand up after only 30 minutes after birth. A few hours later, they can already walk.
During the mating season, bison bulls engage in fierce battles for possession of the females by ramming their heads against each other. Females who want to mate with the dominant bull gallop around to stir up rivalry between the bulls.
Two subspecies are distinguished:
- Bison bison bison – this is the most common subspecies. It naturally lives more on open grasslands, although it has since been introduced to former habitats of the other subspecies.
- Bison bison athabascae Rhoads, 1897 – this subspecies is much rarer and had its habitat further north, in the Canadian forests. It lives in smaller groups and the animals are heavier.
Today the bison is a protected animal; about 30,000 remain. Wild herds live only in Yellowstone National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the U.S., in Wood Buffalo National Park and Elk Island National Park in Canada. Since 2013, attempts have been made to introduce the species to a number of Russian reserves.
Bison hunting and eradication
The American bison has been almost systematically extirpated. Several hundred years ago, millions of individuals lived in North America. In the spring they migrated north along the buffalo trails, in the fall to the warmer south. By the end of the 19th century, fewer than 100 remained in the wild. The lion’s share had been killed for the skull, tongue and fur by mostly Western settlers. Historian Pekka Hämäläinen points out that native Americans also participated in the commercial hunting of bison. Losing their way of life and income, there was no other way for some original inhabitants of the Americas to adapt to the new, commercial way of life in order to survive. Between 1830 and 1839, the Comanche and friendly tribes on the southern prairie killed approximately 280,000 bison a year. A more than 15-year drought that began in 1845 further increased the pressure on the population.
During the 19th century, the great slaughter began. Bison were hunted because they were food competitors to ranchers’ cows. Railroad companies also encouraged hunting because collisions with bison caused damage, bison often sheltered where rail lines cut through hills or mountains, causing train delays. Bison were also hunted for their skins, which were used as drive belts or rugs. Large quantities of bison hides were exported to Europe. Between 1872 and 1874, 3,700,000 bison were killed, of which only 150,000 were killed by Native Americans. White hunters killed the animals for their skins and left the carcasses to rot. The original inhabitants of the Americas killed as many animals as they needed, dried the meat, preserved marrow and fat, cut spoons and cups from the horns, braided lassoes and belts from the hair, and worked the hides into tent cloths, clothing and moccasins. Finally, bison were hunted to force the prairie Indians to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and settle on reservations. As recently as 1875, General Philip Sheridan pleaded in the U.S. Congress for the latter reason to eradicate the bison. When concerned Texans asked him to do something about this wholesale slaughter by white hunters, Sheridan replied, “Let them kill, skin and sell until all bison are exterminated, for that is the only way to a lasting peace and further expansion of white civilization.
Hunters organized special bison hunting trains, from which the herds could then be shot. As a result, by 1884 the bison had been virtually eradicated. The Indian lost his Indian buffalo, indispensable for its hide and meat.