Bison: Back from the brink of extermination

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115212742930347.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The American Bison in Yellowstone Park appears unconcerned as a geyser erupts nearby.’);

One of the symbols of the Western United States is the American bison that is more commonly called the American buffalo. Most of us know the sad story of the wanton slaughter of the millions of this, the largest of our wild mammals, that virtually eliminated the species from our fauna.

At one time, bison were widespread from Alaska to northern Mexico, including the Eastern U.S., but small herds of them now exist in the wild only on protected and private lands in the West and Canada. The most prominent of these remnants of an estimated 60 million that still roamed the plains in the middle of the 19th century are to be found in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Wood Buffalo Park, Northwest Territory, Canada.

Many believe the white man was entirely responsible for the wholesale killing of the bison, but the Native Americans certainly played a significant role in the near extermination of this noble beast. Though Buffalo Bill Cody once boasted he killed 4,280 buffalo in a 12-month period of time for use by railroad workers, Indians frequently killed many more animals than were needed to supply their basic needs.

When Theodore Roosevelt was ranching and hunting in the Dakota Territory in the mid-1880s, he described how he had to track for days a single buffalo into Montana before he could add it to his list of trophies. T.R. would have had little trouble locating a buffalo to shoot few years earlier as great herds of them then roamed the areas encompassed by his two ranch sites.

Though a female bison produces on the average only one offspring each year, the large size of the herds may be explained by the fact bison live 15-20 years in the wild and start reproducing at a relatively young age. Female bison nurse, guard and render care for their young for up to a year. The young are not helpless when born, being able to walk and run within a few hours after birth. Mating occurs in mid summer, and after a gestation period of about nine months, birth occurs in spring when there is a better chance of survival. Only the mountain lion and the wolf (man excluded) are capable of preying on bison, and this is almost always on the sick, impaired or young of the herd.

Bison may appear to be insensitive huge beasts (they may be about 6 feet in length and weigh in the neighborhood of 2,200 pounds), but they are quite aware of what is occurring in their environment. Their olfactory sense is excellent and plays an essential role in their detection of danger. The eyes are relatively small, but they can distinguish large objects about a half a mile away and moving objects from a distance of approximately 2 miles. They can communicate with each other vocally by grunts and snorts to warn of danger or the location of water or food. In addition, they are excellent runners and can attain a speed of about 30 miles per hour. Since they are proficient swimmers, rivers or other bodies of water offer no impediment to their travels.

In addition to being a major source of food and hides for Native Americans and many white settlers, bison had additional effects on humans. Often the trails they made through mountain passes in the West proved to be the best way for roads to be built. The grazing and dust-wallowing habits of the large herds greatly influenced the ecosystems they inhabited. Plant communities were greatly affected, and, along with them, the animals that adapted to live in a bison-dominated landscape.

Bison may carry and transmit certain diseases that also infect cattle, brucellosis (undulant fever in man) being a prime example. Any bison wandering off the reservation from Yellowstone Park to adjacent Montana is liable to be shot by a rancher who fears brucellosis will be transmitted to his cattle. Experts argue, however, that transmission between bison and cattle is not likely in natural settings.

The raising of bison as a meat source is gaining popularity in this country. The meat is said to be healthier than that produced by cattle. I have infrequently noticed buffalo meat for sale in a local supermarket, but I have never been inclined to try it.

Anyone with an additional interest in the bison may go to Questions such as where to go to see bison, where to find bison meat, bison state data, and bison classified ads, along with a host of other questions, are answered.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the July 5-11, 2006, issue

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