There’s no doubt that you recognized this animal immediately: With its tremendous size, massive, low-hanging head and shaggy coat, this symbol of the American Plains from days gone by is unmistakable. But did you know that you probably called it the wrong name? It’s true: The animal that most people call a “buffalo” is properly known as the American bison. What’s the difference? Bison and buffalo are both members of the family Bovidae, which also includes yaks and domestic cows, so they are related. However, true buffaloes (like the Cape buffalo) are only found in Africa and Asia, and their heads are considerably smaller than those of the bison.
The story of the American bison is a sad one. Before the arrival of European settlers, these huge animals—standing up to 6½ feet at the shoulder and weighing over a ton—had very few natural predators, and nearly unlimited resources. Although nobody knows for sure how many bison there were prior to the 1850s, estimates put the figure between 30 and 60 million animals. Bison herds could stretch from horizon to horizon. Native Americans did hunt them, but there were so many bison and so few humans that the bison population didn’t suffer.
That all changed in the mid-19th century, in the days before scientifically managed hunting, hunting permits and bag limits. As American settlers moved west, they hunted the buffalo nearly to extinction. By 1885, government estimates put the total bison population at 200.
These days, bison populations have rebounded somewhat. It’s estimated that about 15,000 bison now range as part of truly wild populations. It’s even possible to hunt wild bison again; Utah, Alaska and Montana all offer a limited number of tags.
FAST FACTS: • Bison are raised commercially for their meat, which is very high in protein, low in fat and tastes a great deal like beef. • Despite their appearance, bison are nimble jumpers. They’ve been known to leap over each other’s backs when startled! • The bison is the largest land mammal in North America.