The bison, which we know as buffalo, is the largest mammal on the North American continent. It is characterized by curved horns, large shoulders, and tapered hindquarters. The hair on a buffalo’s front quarters grows as much longer than over the rump. This hair forms a hood that hangs down from its forehead to its muzzle, a thick mane, and cuffs on its front legs. The hair provides insulation for the cold weather. Bison originally inhabited most of the North American continent and evolved into two types, the Plains and Wood Bison. Although they are closely related, the Wood Bison lives farther north and is bigger than the Plains Bison.
Adult bison require about 25 pounds of forage a day. Bison prefer grass but when necessary will eat leaves and other forage. Bison thrive anywhere there is adequate forage, water, and space. Grasslands and meadows are perfect places for bison to live. They will use forested areas for shade, protection from insects, and an additional food source when there is snow on the ground. However, bison are quite capable of fending for themselves in the winter, even when the snowfall is several feet deep. Bison will use their large heads to move the snow aside to reach grasses and plants. Bison also tend to be seasonally migratory. These migrations are based on weather conditions, availability of food, and tradition.
Bison are social creatures. Females usually travel in herds of up to 60 related animals while mature males either roam alone or in small groups. Solitary males and groups of males will stay by themselves until breeding season (July through September) when they will join with a group of females. The females are very protective of their young and will become very aggressive if they are threatened.
Bison cows give birth to one calf after a 285-day gestation period. Bison calves can often stand up in 15 to 20 minutes, run after 3 hours and are weaned at 5 to 7 months. In nature, the calf will stay with its mother for about 3 years. Then it will join one of the mature herds.
Demise of the Wild Bison
The systematic reduction of the plains herds began around 1830 with the westward expansion of the North American frontier. Politically, eradication of buffalo freed up pasture for sprawling cattle ranches while enabling the control and ultimate assimilation of Native Americans by destroying their primary source of food and clothing. Organized groups of hunters often killed up to 250 animals a day, and the northern and southern herds were decimated. By the turn of the century, less than 300 wild buffalo remained out of the millions of majestic beasts that once coloured the U.S. and Canadian prairies.
A few foresighted ranchers and the Canadian government were instrumental in saving Bison as a species. Slowly, private and government protected herds have boosted the buffalo’s overall population over the years. While the present herds, numbering about 200,000 buffalo in all, are not as large as the great herds that once ranged the North American continent, they are large enough to ensure the continued well being of the North American buffalo for generations to come.