The history of American Bison has shown both the tragedy of
overexploitation and the miracles that can occur when
conservation efforts are created.
American Bison (Bison bison) belong to the family Bovidae, which includes cattle and goats. Due to the misnomer given by early settlers because of the resemblance to the herds of oxen in Asia and Africa, they are sometimes called buffalo. One main physical difference is the large shoulder hump found on the bison.
Bison are the largest land mammals found in North America since the end of the Ice Age, reaching lengths up to 10 feet and shoulder lengths up to 6 feet. They can weigh over a ton. They have a huge head with a single pair of curved, horns, a large shoulder hump, and tapered hindquarters. They are covered with wooly hair that varies in color with the season, but is usually dark brown to black.
Despite their great size, bison are quite agile and can run up to 35 miles per hour. They have poor eyesight, but acute hearing and an exceptional sense of smell. Though they can appear peaceful and unconcerned, their temperament is unpredictable, and can respond quickly when disturbed.
During most of the year the older bulls remain separated from the main herd of females and calves, but they return during mating season which peaks in July and August. Females are very protective of their young, and can become aggressive if threatened. Male bison do not take part in caring for the young.
The gestation period lasts about 285 days, and births usually occur in April and May. Calves are a reddish-brown or buff color, generally weigh 30 to 70 pounds, and do not have the apparent hump of the adult bison. It will stand to nurse within 30 minutes, walk within hours, and in one to two days join the herd with its mother. The calf stays with its mother for about three years. Life span for bison can range from 18 to 22 years.
Bison are grazers, and their diet consists of various grasses and sedges, and will sometimes feed on berries and lichens. Adults need an average of about 30 pounds of forage daily. In the winter, they will use their head and hooves to clear the snow from vegetation, and will eat snow when water is covered with ice.
Bison were highly important to many American Indians. Almost every part of the bison could be used for some purpose. Besides the use of meat for food and the hides for clothing, the teeth, bones, fat, organs and even excrement of bison were of use to many tribes.
When European settlers arrived, bison populations were estimated at approximately 50 million animals. Through the next centuries the number drastically decreased, falling to about 1,500 by the late 1800s. However, with help from conservationists and private owners, the bison population has increased significantly and is now numbered at over 350,000 nationwide. The American bison began its come back in the rugged landscape of southwest Oklahoma. In 1905, William T. Hornaday and others organized the American Bison Society and demanded that the buffalo be given care and protection. Through the efforts of the American Bison Society and the New York Zoological Society, an offer was made to donate 15 bison to the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve (now the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge). Congress set aside $15,000 for this purpose, and on October 11, 1907, 15 buffalo from the New York Zoological Park were shipped by rail to Oklahoma. Seven days later, these seven bulls and eight cows had safely returned to the plains and mountains.
Today the herd numbers about 600 strong and bison from the Wichita’s have been transported to begin and bolster new herds across the country. Bison can also be seen at the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Ponca City.
Considering the drastic number that bison were reduced to just a few generations ago, it is a true gift that we can see them today.