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Height: 6-6.5 feet at the shoulderLength: 10-12.5 feetWeight: 900-2,000 lbs. Males are larger than females.Lifespan: 18-22 years in the wild; over 30 years in captivity.

Vine Creek Ranch at Death Valley National Park. Steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.

Such a distinction is not a general feature of the language (for example, Arapaho possesses gender-neutral terms for other large mammals such as elk, mule deer, etc), and so presumably is due to the special significance of the buffalo in Plains Indian life and culture.

A bison charging through a river at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Donald Higgs (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Bulls and cows do not mingle until breeding season. Dominant bulls “tend” to cows, following the cow around until the cow chooses to mate. During this period, the bull blocks the cow’s vision so that she may not see other competing bulls, and bellows at males striving for the cow’s attention.

Bison once covered the Great Plains and much of North America, and were critically important to Plains Indian societies. During the 19th century, settlers killed some 50 million bison for food, sport, and to deprive Native Americans of their most important natural asset. The once enormous herds were reduced to only a few hundred animals. Today, bison numbers have rebounded somewhat, and about 500,000 bison live on preserves and ranches where they are raised for their meat.

Bison traces were characteristically north and south, but several key east-west trails were used later as railways. Some of these include the Cumberland Gap through the Blue Ridge Mountains to upper Kentucky. A heavily used trace crossed the Ohio River at the Falls of the Ohio and ran west, crossing the Wabash River near Vincennes, Indiana. In Senator Thomas Hart Benton's phrase saluting these sagacious path-makers, the bison paved the way for the railroads to the Pacific.[68]

On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, officially making the American bison the national mammal of the United States. This majestic animal joins the ranks of the Bald Eagle as the official symbol of our country -- and much like the eagle, it’s one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.

While bison have made a comeback since their population was devastated over 100 years ago, the species still depends heavily on conservation action for its survival.

The B. latifrons species was replaced by the smaller Bison antiquus. B. antiquus appeared in the North American fossil record approximately 250,000 years ago.[29] B. antiquus, in turn, evolved into B. occidentalis, then into the yet smaller B. bison—the modern American bison—some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.[30][31] Some researchers consider B. occidentalis to be a subspecies of B. antiquus.[32]

Buffalo hunting (hunting of the American bison) was an activity fundamental to the Midwestern Native Americans, which was later adopted by American professional hunters, leading to the near-extinction of the species around 1890. It has since begun to recover.

The steppe bison (Bison priscus) diverged from the lineage that led to cattle (Bos taurus) about 2 to 5 million years ago. The bison genus is clearly in the fossil record by 2 million years ago.[23] The steppe bison spread across Eurasia and was the bison that was pictured in the ancient cave paintings of Spain and Southern France.

A bison watching over a calf at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Diana LeVasseur (www.sharetheexperience.org).

A bison walking by the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Photo by Jennifer Michaud (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Bos americanus Bos bison Bison americanus Bison bison montanae

These large grazers feed on plains grasses, herbs, shrubs, and twigs. They regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before final digestion.

A major problem that bison face today is a lack of genetic diversity due to the population bottleneck the species experienced during its near-extinction event. Another genetic issue is the entry of genes from domestic cattle into the bison population, through hybridization.[40]

In Plains Indian languages in general, male and female buffaloes are distinguished, with each having a different designation rather than there being a single generic word covering both sexes. Thus:

Bison standing in the snow at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Spring is coming early in 3/4 of national parks, according to a new study. Awesome? Not so much. As flowers bloom earlier every year, it’s disrupting the link between the wildflowers and the arrival of birds, bees, and butterflies that feed on and pollinate the flowers. In Shenandoah, an earlier spring is giving invasive plants a head start, and they’re displacing native wildflowers, leading to costly management issues.

Along with the efforts of American Bison Society, Congress began to take action to protect the remaining bison, and private ranchers started to create small herds. Slowly, the population crept up thanks to legal protection, refuges and breeding programs at zoos and other institutions.

A bison calf between two adults. Photo by Rich Keen, DPRA.

6. The history of bison and Native Americans are intertwined. Bison have been integral to tribal culture, providing them with food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter and spiritual value. Established in 1992, the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council works with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national park lands to tribal lands.

Bison herd on the move. Photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service.

2. Since the late 19th century, Interior has been the primary national conservation steward of the bison. Public lands managed by Interior support 17 bison herds -- or approximately 10,000 bison -- in 12 states, including Alaska.

For thousands of years, bison maintained the prairie ecology. Seeds spread and grazed grasses grew back in a continuous cycle. Without bison, the prairies almost disappeared. With the recovery of bison, the prairies themselves are coming back. Now that herds are protected, native prairies are taking root once more.

Bison stand some 5 to 6.5 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) tall at the shoulder, and can tip the scales at over a ton (907 kilograms). Despite their massive size, bison are quick on their feet. When the need arises they can run at speeds up to 40 miles (65 kilometers) an hour. They sport curved, sharp horns that may grow to be two feet (61 centimeters) long.

Bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. Photo by Jim Carr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Females (cows) and adult males (bulls) generally live in small, separate bands and come together in very large herds during the summer mating season. Males battle for mating primacy, but such contests rarely turn dangerous. Females give birth to one calf after a nine-month pregnancy.

A bison wallow is a shallow depression in the soil, which bison use either wet or dry. Bison roll in these depressions, covering themselves with dust or mud. Past and current hypotheses to explain the purpose of wallowing include grooming associated with shedding, male-male interaction (typically rutting), social behavior for group cohesion, play, relief from skin irritation due to biting insects, reduction of ectoparasite (tick and lice) load, and thermoregulation.[54]

3. What’s the difference between bison and buffalo? While bison and buffalo are used interchangeably, in North America the scientific name is bison. Actually, it’s Bison bison bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: bison), but only saying it once is fine. Historians believe that the term “buffalo” grew from the French word for beef, “boeuf.”

American Bison

15. Bison are nearsighted -- who knew? While bison have poor eyesight, they have excellent senses of smell and hearing. Cows and calves communicate using pig-like grunts, and during mating season, bulls can be heard bellowing across long distances.

Bison once covered the Great Plains and much of North America, and were critically important to Plains Indian societies. During the 19th century, settlers killed some 50 million bison for food, sport, and to deprive Native Americans of their most important natural asset. The once enormous herds were reduced to only a few hundred animals. Today, bison numbers have rebounded somewhat, and about 200,000 bison live on preserves and ranches where they are raised for their meat.

How are American Indian nations involved in bringing bison back?

About 500,000 bison currently exist on private lands and around 30,000 on public lands which includes environmental and government preserves.[37] According to the IUCN, roughly 15,000 bison are considered wild, free-range bison not primarily confined by fencing.[38]

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the first national monument to preserve the landscape and honor the history and culture of Maine’s North Woods. Photo courtesy of Scot Miller.

1. Bison are the largest mammal in North America. Male bison (called bulls) weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, while females (called cows) weigh up to 1,000 pounds and reach a height of 4-5 feet. Bison calves weigh 30-70 pounds at birth.

However, Y chromosome analysis associated wisent and American bison.[20] An earlier study using amplified fragment length polymorphism fingerprinting showed a close association of wisent and American bison and probably with yak, but noted that the interbreeding of Bovini species made determining relationships problematic.[21] It is shown, however, the wisent may have emerged by species divergence initiated by the introgression of bison bulls in a separate ancestral species.[22]

7. You can judge a bison’s mood by its tail. When it hangs down and switches naturally, the bison is usually calm. If the tail is standing straight up, watch out! It may be ready to charge. No matter what a bison’s tail is doing, remember that they are unpredictable and can charge at any moment. Every year, there are regrettable accidents caused by people getting too close to these massive animals. It’s great to love the bison, but love them from a distance.