Bison – A Complete Guide


bison

The bison is one of the first mammals that you may think of when you think of America and are the countries national mammal. They are ingrained in the history and culture of the United States, not only to the early Native Americans but have been featured on state flags and seals. I wanted to look into these massive creatures and have done some research to share with you here.

The bison is known by its binomial species name of Bison bison. Bison are the largest land mammal in North America and live in the United States and Canada. There were upwards of thirty million bison in America at one time but were forced to near extinction by hunting and the movement of people to the west.

Bison are herd animals and migrate in great numbers due to food and water constraints. Bison can be extremely dangerous due to their large size and unpredictable nature. Wolves do not have many natural predators but can be taken down by a pack of wolves.

There is a lot of information about American bison, and I wanted to condense this for you. I am sure you will find out some fantastic facts about these magnificent American animals.

Did you know that bison are a keystone species? Find out why here.

Etymology 

The American bison is also known as the American buffalo. Although known as a buffalo, they are a distinct species from the Asian water buffalo and African buffalo.  

The word bison is a Greek word which means ox-like animal. Bison were known as buffalo since 1619 when Samuel de Champlain published his book ‘The works of Samuel de Champlain”.  

Bison
Bison

Samuel, a Frenchman names the buffalo after the translation of the word beef. The French word is boeuf, which means a large cow. The book was written after visiting natives of the Nipissing First Nation. They showed him a drawing of the animal along with various skins and hides.  

Bison was a word that was coined in 1774. Due to the American Bison being a distinct species from the Asian Buffalo and African buffalo, the American species was changed to its taxonomic name of bison bison.  

The name change was due to the American buffalo’s similarity to another animal, the European bison, also known as the wisent (Bison bonasus). 

What is a Male and Female Bison Called?

The male Bison is known as a bull; the female Bison is called a cow.

Range 

Approximately sixty million bison were living in North America in the 1800s, but their numbers were depleted down to an estimated three hundred and twenty-five by 1884. The bison were essential for food, clothing, shelter, and tools for the Native Americans. For the early settlers to conquer the west, they needed to overcome the locals. The US army campaigned to defeat the Native Americans by destroying the bison.  

Bison could be found across most of the southern states and northern Mexico, before their almost extinction.

Where do Bison Live?

United States

There are approximately five hundred thousand bison currently in America. These can be found in Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Utah and North, and South Dakota.

Plains Bison 

In Wyoming, bison can be found at Yellowstone National Park. There are two herds in Yellowstone with nearly five thousand bison.

In Montana, the bison can also be seen in Yellowstone National Park. They can also be found at the National Bison Refuge near Missoula, where there are approximately five hundred bison.

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

There are some fantastic places to see buffalo hers roaming wild in Oklahoma. The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge has a population of six hundred and fifty, and ninety plains bison can be seen at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

If you live in Nebraska or want to visit, then you can see bison in Grand Island and Mormon Island. Forty-two wild plains bison were moved into the state in 2015.

Although there are no longer any wild bison in Iowa, there is a herd that can be seen at the Jester Park wildlife enclosure.

Kansas is a great spot to see wild bison and has the fifth-largest population. The Maxwell Wildlife Refuge has a herd of two hundred. There are several other places to see them in Kansas such as the Wild West Heritage Buffalo and Longhorn Exhibit and Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area. They can also be found at Plumlee Buffalo Ranch and the Lazy Heart D Ranch.

Utah has one of only four purebred herds in North America, with a herd of up to four hundred bison in the Henry Mountains. There is another bison herd in Antelope Island State Park. Approximately seven hundred plains bison are living here.

South Dakota 

Located in Wind Cave National Park, a herd of up to four hundred bison can be seen roaming the plains.

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

North Dakota 

There are small herds in two main sites in North Dakota. These can be found in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park where you can also see the former presidents ranch. Theodore Roosevelt, although he originally hunted bison, formed the American Bison Society in 1905 to save the bison.  
There are two herds with four hundred animals in the south and three hundred in the North. The second place to see them is in the Cross Ranch Nature Preserve in Hensler where you can see a herd of more than two hundred plains bison.

Wood Bison

Alaska 

Wood bison can only be found in one state of the United States in Alaska. There is a herd of approximately one hundred and fifty wood bison in Shageluk. Since their reintroduction to Alaska in 2015, there have been nearly thirty calves born.

Wood Bison
Wood Bison

Canada

There are two subspecies of bison in Canada, the plains bison, and the wood bison. These can be found from the Northwest Territories to Manitoba, the Yukon, and Alberta.

Plains Bison

Alberta

Due to their near extinction, conservation efforts were put in place in Canada. A herd of more than 700 plains bison was moved from Montana between 1907 and 1909. They were transported to Elk Island National Park in Alberta. The small herd grew rapidly and is now one of the best success stories for species recovery programs. 

The plains bison from Elk Island National Park are now used to establish new herds across Alberta. Most bison found on farms in Canada also come from the national park. The number of plains bison in Elk Island National Park is approximately four hundred.

Saskatchewan

Plains bison can be found in southwest Saskatchewan. The bison can be seen on the Old Man On His Back Plateau and along the McCusker River and Sturgeon River. Plains bison can also be found in Grasslands National Park, with over three hundred adult bison in the park. 

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

British Columbia

Plains bison can also be seen in British Columbia in the Pink Mountain area and the Liard River. There are thought to be several hundred animals in the herd.

Wood Bison

The other subspecies of bison, the wood bison, were taken from Elk Island National Park to nearby Wood Buffalo National Park.  

British Columbia 

The wood bison can be seen in British Columbia, with a herd of approximately one hundred bison occupying the Hay-Zama area in the northeast of the province. In Nordquist, there are less than eighty animals, and in Ettithun Lake there are just over one hundred and twenty wood bison.

Wood Bison
Wood Bison

Alberta

There is a population of approximately three hundred wood bison in Elk Island National Park.

Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories have a few different herds of bison, with over one hundred in Nahanni, and a smaller group of bison in Mackenzie.

Yukon

Bison
Bison

The Yukon Territory has a herd of over twelve hundred animals, and these can be found around Aishihik Lake. 

Distribution 

Wood Buffalo National Park, now the largest in Canada, had a population of just two hundred, but by the mid-1920s, the number had risen to almost fifteen hundred. The increase in numbers was wiped out between 1925 and 1927 when seven thousand plains bison were moved into the park from Buffalo National Park.  

The increase in numbers led to the two subspecies being hybridized, and by the 1940s wood, bison were thought almost extinct. Seventeen years later in 1957, a small herd of wood bison was found. Some of this herd were moved to two different territories. The first was moved to Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary in the Northwest Territories; the second was moved to Elk Island National Park. There are thought to be up to 7,000 wood bison in Canada presently.

A smaller group of plains bison were also established in Banff National Park in 1898. They were kept here as a paddock display herd. Although no longer there, a new wild population were bought to Banff in 2017.

Habitat 

Bison live on prairies and plains and in river valleys. They prefer open grasslands, scrubland, and sagebrush, although will venture into lightly wooded areas. They will also roam into mountainous regions but are not an animal that likes high altitudes. They can sometimes be found grazing up to ten thousand feet above sea level. They will not graze on steep slopes in hilly or mountainous regions.  

Bison
Bison

Population

How Many Bison are in the United States?  

The population of bison in the United States has increased dramatically from the late 1800s. Although wild bison are still not even a fraction of the level they were in that time, there are approximately five hundred thousand currently in the country.

There are approximately one hundred and eighty-four thousand bison in the US living on farms and private ranches, with 1,775 ranches and farms currently raising them.  

In Canada, approximately 120,000 bison are living in ranches and farms.  

There is another 10,000 bison in US federal herds and approximately 9,000 in state and other public herds. Along with this population, another 20,000 bison are estimated to be on tribal lands.

Most of the current bison can be found in farms and private ranches, with only the following numbers left in the wild.

For information on why the bison almost became extinct, I have written this article.

How Many Wild Bison are in the United States?

StatePopulationSubspecies
Alaska150Wood
Kansas200Plains
Nebraska42Plains
North Dakota900Plains
Oklahoma740Plains
South Dakota400Plains
Utah1100Plains
Wyoming5500Plains

How Many Wild Bison are in Canada?  

ProvincePopulationSubspecies
Alberta400Plains
British Columbia350Plains
British Columbia300Wood
Northwestern Territories150Wood
Saskatchewan300Plains
Yukon1200Wood

Subspecies 

There are two subspecies of American bison currently. These are the plains bison and the wood bison.

Plains Bison

The plains bison is the smaller of the two subspecies of bison. Plains bison can be seen in many places in North America, following their near extinction from human hunting until the 1900s. There are approximately 3,000 bison in Yellowstone National Park, the largest herd of bison in North America.

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

Plains bison, although smaller than wood bison are still huge animals. Native Americans used the bison not only as food, but for tools and weapons such as arrowheads, and also for clothing and shelter.

Wood Bison

The wood bison is the larger and heavier subspecies of American bison. They are the heaviest living animal in North America and can weigh up to nearly 1,200 kg (2,645 lb.)

The wood bison is characterized by the muscular hump of the shoulder being further forward towards the head than directly above the front legs.  

Wood Bison
Wood Bison

By the 1900s, wood bison were thought to be extinct. However, a herd of approximately 200 were found in Alberta, Canada. This discovery bought the wood bison back from the brink of extinction, and there are currently approximately 7,000 wild wood bison.

Behavior 

What is the Behavior of a Bison?  

Bison, like many other ungulates, spend a lot of their day eating, regurgitating their food, and resting.  

Bison are seen to be most active during the early morning and late afternoon, due to the heat and temperatures they generally live in.

The bison like to wallow in either wet or dry soil. They use a shallow depression in which they roll themselves, covering them with dust or mud. Although scientists are not sure of the reason for the wallowing, other animals do this to groom themselves, to relieve themselves from itching associated with insects such as mosquitoes and as social behavior.

How Fast is a Bison?  

For such a large animal, the bison is incredibly fast. They can run at a speed of 64 km/h (40 mph). With their surprising speed and incredible strength and power, bison are very dangerous to humans and can outrun them over short distances.  

Sleep

How Do Bison Sleep?

Bison are members of the Bovidae family, but unlike other animals such as sheep, deer, and cattle they sleep laying down.  

Unlike other members of the family, they are unable to lock their legs to sleep standing. Due to their large stature, bison are unlikely to be attacked, even by a predator such as a grizzly bear. Due to this, they will sleep on the ground. Although a grizzly could take down a large bull, they are unlikely to come out of the attack uninjured and may not survive the next winter.

Bison
Bison

Bison will sleep in a herd to protect themselves. They will sleep in different directions to help them see all around in the case of a predator, and not just with their faces into the wind.  

Bison appear to have a system where they do not all sleep at once. They will sleep at different times, with some bison in the herd waking up when others go to sleep, typically within a few minutes.

Want to know about other keystone species. Check out this list of ten keystone species in North America.

Where do Bison Sleep?

Bison are prey animals so like to have a good viewpoint for any predators such as a pack of wolves that may attack. Due to their nature as prey animals, they will often choose a hill where they can watch for predators and also see the rest of the herd.  

They will often choose to sleep in short grass over long grass to enable them to get a better view of their surroundings and to be able to hear better.

Wood Bison
Wood Bison

Are Bison Nocturnal or Diurnal?  

Bison are active during the day, making them a diurnal animal. They have poor eyesight, which would hinder them at night. Most animals were initially diurnal. Due to fewer predators at night, and with them able to forage for food with less competition at night, more and more animals become nocturnal.

The bison does not have these problems. The food they eat is always available, day or night, and due to their large size, they do not have many natural predators.  

How Long Does a Bison Live?  

Bison can live up to twenty-five years in captivity and approximately fifteen years in the wild. Human hunting and natural predators can severely shorten their life expectancy in the wild.  

Bison
Bison

The oldest bison in captivity was forty years old. The oldest bison in the wild was thirty years and lived in a pasture in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Anatomy 

There are several anatomical differences between the two subspecies of American bison, which make both of these animals quite distinct.

Plains Bison

Plains bison are the smaller of the two subspecies. Bulls are larger than cows as is common in most mammals.  

Hump

One of the differences between both the plains bison and the wood bison is that the hump is at a different angle. The hump on the plains bison is at an angle of twenty-five degrees and less pronounced than the wood bison. The highest point of the hump is located over the front legs.

Hair

Plains bison has a pronounced line between the front hair and the back of the animal, usually after the front legs.  

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

The hair on their heads is matted and almost afro. The hair on the head is very dense.  

The beard on the plains bison is long and pear-shaped. The hair around the neck is extended with lengths reaching below the knees. A tuft of hair is also around the penis.   

Tail

The tail of the plains bison is short and does not reach the knees of the animal.  

Wood Bison

Hump

The highest point of the hump is further forward than the plains bison and is ahead of the front legs.  

The hump is at a more pronounced angle than the plains bison. The hump is at an angle of forty-three degrees.

Hair

The head-on the hair of the wood bison is in long strands, unlike the afro appearance of the plains bison.  

Whereas the plains bison has a distinct line between the fur on the front of its body and the back, the wood bison does not.  

Wood Bison
Wood Bison

They do not have much hair on their legs, unlike the long chaps of the plains bison, and the beard is thin and pointed. They do not have a tuft of hair on their penis. 

The neck mane hair is very short and does not even reach the knee.

Tail

The wood bison has a longer tail than its cousin, with the end of the tail generally reaching the back knees.

Adaptations

Being prey animals, bison have several adaptations to help them to survive in the wild.

Physical Adaptations

Smell

Bison have a very keen sense of smell which they use to help protect themselves from predators. A bison can smell a predator up to 3 kilometers away, and they use this sense to stay away from predators. 

Strength

One of the bisons huge adaptations to the wild is its strength. Bison can live in almost any habitat and can use their power to adapt to the weather. Bison have weak legs that would otherwise hider them in snowy conditions, but the bison use their heads to shovel the snow in front of them, allowing them to travel to their destinations.

Bison also show their strength during the mating rut, with the larger bulls showing their dominance to the females by beating off other bison using their heads and powerful necks.

Bison have been seen as a symbol of strength to Native Americans, and have also been used as the symbol on flags, coins, and seals. The bison has been used as a mascot for many schools, colleges, and universities due to its symbol of strength.

Size 

The bison is not only the largest mammal in North America but also the largest land animal on the continent. 

Are Male Bison Bigger Than Females?  

As with almost all mammals, male bulls are nearly always larger than the female cows.

How Tall and Long is a Bison?  

Bison
Bison

Wood bison are larger and heavier than their cousins, the plains bison. The highest point of a bison is the muscular shoulder hump. Bison can stand up to almost 2 meters (6.5 feet) feet tall at the shoulder. Bison are long creatures as well, with a length up to 3.5 meters (11.5 ft.) 

How Big was the Largest Bison?  

Bison raised in captivity can grow more significant than their wild counterparts, due to their diet in captivity.  

The largest bison in the wild was recorded at a weight of 1,270 kg (2,800 lb) whereas the largest bison in captivity was a massive 1,724 kg (3,801 lb.)

How Big is a Bison Cub?  

Bison calves can weigh up to 31 kg (70 lb) at birth. 

Weight

How Heavy is a Bison?  

Bison are very large animals and can range in size and weight. A fully grown bison can be anywhere between 400 kg to 900 kg (880 to 1,980 lb.). American bison are smaller and lighter than European bison.  

Diet  

What Does a Bison Eat? 

The diet of a bison is made up of grasses and sedges, but will also eat lichen and berries. They will even eat a variety of twigs, shrubs, and herbs. Bison are ruminants, and like cows, have one stomach with four compartments. They use these compartments to extract all the nutrients from the food they eat. If you want a more detailed explanation of how the stomach of a ruminant works, I have written an article on a cows stomach here.

Bison
Bison

How Much Water do Bison Drink?  

Bison get a lot of their water intake from their diet of grasses and sedges, but also need more water to survive. Bison only need to drink once per day, but their daily consumption can range from three to thirty gallons per day. The amount they need depends on their body size, the temperature of their environment, and how old they are.

Reproduction

The mating season of the bison starts in July through to September. Female bison are ready for reproduction, beginning between the age of two to three years.  

Bison have a very distinct way of selecting their mate. They do this in a process called ‘tending.’ Males cut the female off from the rest of the pack, continually staying between them. The ‘tend’ can last up to several days, but also as quickly as a few minutes.

Females that are not interested in the male will walk away and rejoin the herd. Fights can occur between males getting close to another male that is trying to tend a female. Bison can lock horns, headbutt and shove each other.

The length of pregnancy is roughly the same as a human being, nine months. Calves are given birth to in an area away from the herd and will stay away for a few days.  

The calves are weaned from the mother by the time they are seven months old and will begin to develop their characteristic horns and shoulder humps.

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

Characteristics 

American bison are large land mammals who live on the plains and prairies of the United States.  They have a large muscular hump on their shoulders and small horns. They use their heads to move through the snow in the winter, and also to find snow-covered vegetation to eat.

Bison live in herds of up to twenty, made up of calves and females. Males live in separate groups, also up to twenty, but will come together with the females during the mating season.  Herds of bison will have a dominant male or female.    

Sustentation 

Bison were once almost hunted to extinction, and are currently on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

I have written an article about the official state mammals of the United States. The bison is the official state mammal of a few states. Is yours one of them? Find out here.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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