Bison, a hoofed animal related to cattle. The American bison, a species native to North America, is popularly called buffalo. (The true buffalo, however, is an animal of Asia or Africa. The European bison, called wisent, is now rare.

The bisonThe bison is a large, hoofed animal with long, shaggy hair and curved horns.
Appearance and Habits

The bison is a large mammal with long, shaggy hair and curved horns. It has a keen sense of smell but relatively poor vision. The male American bison stands about six feet (1.8 m) high at the shoulder, is about 9 to 10 feet (2.7 to 3 m) long, and weighs from about 1,600 to 2,500 pounds (725 to 1,135 kg) or more. The European bison is taller and longer than the American animal, but it generally weighs less, and its coat is not as shaggy.

The American bison has a high hump at the shoulder and long hair on the large head and neck. The growth of hair is particularly heavy on the males. The head, legs, and tail are dark brown; the rest of the upper parts are lighter brown.

Bison live in herds, with the males and females remaining together throughout the year. A single bull usually leads groups of cows and calves. When it is frightened, the herd has a tendency to close ranks and stampede. In the spring, thousands of families formerly migrated in large herds in search of new pastures. Until the 1870's, vast herds of bison, numbering several million individuals, moved over the North American plains. On the approach of winter, the animals moved southward or retired into the sheltered valleys of the rivers and mountain ranges.

The food of the bison consists mostly of grass and the tender shoots of a few other plants. The female bears a single calf in May or June.

Bison In America

As early as 10,000 years ago prehistoric Indians hunted, on foot and with spears, species of bison now extinct. Archeological evidence at a site in Colorado indicates that in about 6500 B.C. a band of Indians killed nearly 200 bison by stampeding them off the edge of a dry gulch.

After the arrival of Europeans, many Indian tribes moved out on the North American plains and came to rely on the bison for virtually all their needs. The meat, fat, and bone marrow served as food; meat not eaten at the time of the hunt was dried for winter use. The woolly undercoat was made into robes and the hides were tanned into leather for clothing and tepees. The horns were fashioned into containers.

In the 1860's professional hunters, among them William Cody ("Buffalo Bill"), killed many animals as food for railway builders. The animals were also killed for sport. Even heavier killing came with a demand for hides, which were shipped to eastern markets, and by 1885 approximately 1,000 bison remained. At the turn of the century, only a few hundred bison lived in North America, including a herd preserved in Yellowstone National Park and a few animals in zoos.

Toward the end of the 20th century, American Indians successfully led efforts to reintroduce bison—and native prairie grasses—to the Plains. Indian tribes and others now herd more than 300,000 bison on ranches across the Plains. Canadian herds are found mostly in Wood Buffalo National Park, in northern Alberta.

Some bison are raised for market; others, as tourist attractions; and yet others, as game for hunters. Many Indian colleges offer courses in bison management.

The American bison is Bison bison; the European bison, or wisent, B. bonasus. They belong to the family Bovidae.