Endangered Species Report #49
The American Bison

Written by: Jeremy Koppel

"Vital Ground occurred because when you have the means to do something, it would be sad if one did not act on it." -- Doug Seuss (founder, started in 1990).

The American bison is commonly referred to simply as "the buffalo", but this is a misnomer. Indeed, there are no buffalo native to the Americas; rather, they are true bison. All species of buffalo are native to the Asian and African continents and share little other than a distant resemblance to the American bison. They typically have a much smaller head and neck, they have 13 pairs of ribs, while our bison have 14, and they lack the distinctive hump of both subspecies of American bison; also, the horns of the buffalo are much more conspicuous than on the bison. Though it is not known precisely how the designation of "buffalo" came to be bestowed upon our bison, it is speculated that early European explorers to America started the tradition, not knowing the American bison, but being familiar with the buffalos of Asia and Africa.

Nonetheless, William Temple Hornaday, in his report, The Extermination of the American Bison, part of the 1887 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, stated of the name confusion:

Although Bison Americanus is a true bison, according to scientific classification, and not a buffalo, the fact that more than sixty millions of people in this country unite in calling him a 'buffalo', and know him by no other name, renders it quite unnecessary for me to apologize for following, in part, a harmless custom which has now become so universal that all the naturalists in the world could not change it if they would.

In this report, we will discuss the bison of Hornaday's time, and the bison that have survived to this day. While indeed bison cannot be called common today, even less could be said just over a century ago. In a wild orgy of over-hunting and habitat destruction, the bison was nearly wiped off the face of the earth.


Not two hundred years go, bison used to roam the plains of North America in herds so dense that trains would frequently be forced to stop and wait for them to cross the tracks. Hunters could sit in one place and watch a procession of bison practically half a mile wide march past for nearly an hour. In 1806, Lewis and Clark made the following record in their journal of a herd they witnessed in the southwestern Dakotas: "These last animals [bison] are now so numerous that from an eminence we discovered more than we had ever seen before at one time; and if it be not impossible to calculate the moving multitude, which darkened the whole plains, we are convinced that twenty thousand would be no exaggerated number."

To quote a passage in Thomas B. Allen's book (for National Geographic), Vanishing Wildlife of North America, "In 1871, 2nd Lt. George S. Anderson of the Sixth Cavalry came upon a herd first believed to number in the hundreds... then the hundreds of thousands. 'For six days,' the young commander reported, 'we continued our way through this enormous herd, during the last three of which it was in constant motion across our path.' He found it 'impossible to approximate the millions.'"

Fifteen years later, when Dr. William Temple Hornaday, then with the National Museum (the precursor to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum), toured the West in search of bison, he recorded only 541, and most of those at Yellowstone National Park. By 1891, when Anderson became acting superintendent of the park, the herd numbered only 300.

Hornaday himself said that "Of all the quadrupeds that have lived upon the Earth, probably no other species has ever marshaled such innumerable hosts as those of the American bison. It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870."

From 1871 to 1876, in an effort to slow the onslaught, much legislation to help save the bison was written and passed through the Congress, but President Grant struck them all down.

Dr. William Temple Hornaday

As was the style at the time, Dr. Hornaday set out through the American West to search for bison specimens suitable for mounting. His thought, however, was not in killing the species for glory, but rather to endeavor to save the species by creating a poignant exhibit in the National Museum; at the time, Hornaday was the Smithsonian's chief taxidermist, among other things. His intentions were to try to educate the public on his estimation of the worth of the species.

Hornaday was an avid sportsman, and I believe it safe to presume that his efforts to save the bison were partly motivated by a desire to preserve them for hunting. However, he drew a distinction between sport killing, and the mass slaughter that confronted him. He had this to say of those who would have the bison befall this fate:

The incredible numbers in which the animals of this species formerly existed made their slaughter an easy matter, so much so that the hunters and frontiersmen who accomplished their destruction have handed down to us a contemptuous opinion of the size, character, and general presence of our bison. And how could it be otherwise than that a man who could find it in his heart to murder a majestic bull bison for a hide worth only a dollar should form a one-dollar estimate of the grandest ruminant that ever trod the earth? Men who butcher African elephants for the sake of their ivory also entertain a similar estimate of their victims.

Despite all of Hornaday's efforts, and despite the fact that he never gave up on his cause, it seems he felt from the beginning that the best fate that could be hoped for would still leave the bison a shadow of what he once was. That he would never again roam the countryside in dense herds, wild, natural and uninhibited:

By a combination of unfortunate circumstances, the American bison is destined to go down to posterity shorn of the honor which is his due, and appreciated at only half his worth. The hunters who slew him were from the very beginning so absorbed in the scramble for spoils that they had no time to measure or weigh him, nor even to notice the majesty of his personal appearance on his native heath.
In captivity he fails to develop as finely as in his wild state, and with the loss of his liberty he becomes a tame-looking animal. He gets fat and short-bodied, and the lack of vigorous and constant exercise prevents the development of bone and muscle which made the prairie animal what he was.


There are two subspecies of the American bison: the plains bison, and the wood bison of the northern woods of Alberta, in the area of Athabasca and north - though their previous range included Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories.

The plains bison is a heavy beast of the open fields. Their former range included most of the continental United States, even as far east as Virginia, and perhaps within the very boundaries of Washington DC. They have thick beards and full throat manes full of long luxurious hair, typically around two inches in length, and are light brown in coloration. They have a hump over their forelegs, which is a mass of muscle above their shoulders, but it is less well developed than in the wood bison. Being in the open fields, they can find the vegetation they need fairly easily, and are therefore not so dependant on it. They seemed to have demonstrated fairly little intelligence, and would, for instance, often wander far from good water sources and lush grasses and instead stray into more barren territory. Then, when hunger and thirst drove them to search for food and water, there would be a desperate, single-minded march until a suitable site was found.

The wood bison is a short stocky animal of the woods of western Canada with a seemingly higher intellect. Their senses are much more acute, and will flee at the slightest perception of danger. They usually stay fairly close to good food sources, and forage constantly. This constant activity leaves the wood bison very muscular, with a minimum of useless fat; the hump in the wood bison is very well developed and is actually slightly forward of the forelegs. The pelvis, also, is very well developed, and is suitable for mountain climbing - this is in sharp contrast to the underdeveloped pelvis in the plains animal. Presumably, the constant shade of the sun, and having to forage through underbrush and dense wood is what gives the wood bison its darker unkempt pelt.

Plains Bison
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artriodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Gennus: Bison
Species: Bison
Subspecies: Bison
Wood Bison
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artriodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Gennus: Bison
Species: Bison
Subspecies: Athabascae


Bison begin their life as calves and are quite tame at this stage. They will run about and play with other young bison, much as young domestic cattle do. Unlike most bovines, the hair of a bison calf is of a different color than it is when fully grown; it starts as a light-brown, sandy color, indeed reddish in many cases, while the adult plains bison has a smoky gray-brown color. The wood bison's pelt is even darker.

The next stage of his growth is the Yearling. Between six months and one year, the animal begins to take the shape of the adult bison, and their coat turns to the same color, and grows to nearly the same length as in the adult animal. Also, their horns begin to develop as straight conical spikes.

The hunters of Hornaday's time called male bison between the ages of one to four years a "spike bull", so named for the appearance of their horns at that stage. At this intermediate stage, they have a heightened sense of awareness, and great physical strength. This could be considered the "teenage" years of the bison. If he decides to run, he can effortlessly outpace a hunter on horseback.

By eight years of age, the bison have fully grown into an adult, though cow bison are capable of procreation by the time they are 3. The gestation period is typically about 9 ½ months, with calves born between April and June, rarely through mid-August, and they can give birth twice over a 3-year period. They usually give live birth to one calf (two are uncommon), and the calf will stay with her until he is 3 years old - they nurse until they reach nine months.

Bison are the largest animal in the United States. Bulls can grow up to 6 feet tall and weigh up to a ton (2,000 lbs.); cows grow to 5 ½ feet tall and can weigh 1,400 lbs. Though their eyesight is not spectacular, they have excellent senses of hearing and smell; if they sense danger, they can run up to 40 miles per hour and easily jump a 6-foot tall fence. Longevity for wild bison is typically 12 to 15 years.

The bison's ordinarily sedentary, quiet, and peace-loving nature is interrupted by the mating season, typically from August to September. Bison do not mate for life, but come together only for the season, and the males in a herd will fight each other for breeding rights. These fights are similar to that of bull elephants, but often display greater aggression. Though both males will generally come out of these battles unscathed, the show they put on can be quite spectacular. A bull bison will stand across from his jousting partner, lower his head and elongate his hump, with his nose nearly touching the ground, and will then flare his nostrils, growl, and kick up the earth. Before the charge, and resulting head butt, he will sometimes release a mighty roar that can be heard for miles.

The bison was seemingly custom-made for the American continent, being impervious to the extreme heat of its summers and also to the bitter cold of its winters. They have a think, dense mass of hair in the winter, and shed nearly all of it for the summer. This shedding occurs unevenly; during April, May and June, the body and hindquarters will shed off hair in island-like patches - indeed it can make the bison appear sickly. But by the end of June, the body and hindquarters are bare skin. At this time, the bison's skin is exposed to the burning sun, and biting flies. Though a bison will wallow throughout the year, they are more prone to it during this time. The bison will search out a pool of water or mud, and failing that, will create one of its own, using its hooves and its horns to systematically clear a circular depression in the ground around its body until it fills with groundwater.

Hornaday has this to say about the habit:

Buffaloes are very fond of rolling in dry dirt or even in mud, and this habit is quite strong in captive animals. Not only is it indulged in during the shedding season, but all through the fall and winter. The two live buffaloes in the National Museum are so much given to rolling, even in rainy weather, that it is necessary to card them every few days to keep them presentable.

The section conspicuously missing from this portion of the report are the bison's migration habits. The bison, the wild animal of the past, had free range over the continental United States and Canada, and would wander throughout this whole range. Now, their territory has disappeared around them and they have been effectively quarantined into small patches of land, so this habit has all but vanished.


The quote at the top of this report is from Doug Seuss, who founded Vital Ground in 1990. I think Hornaday, who once said, "It is the duty of every good citizen to promote the protection of forests and wildlife", would agree with his sentiment. Hornaday had the means to do something to save the American bison, and he did much toward that goal.

With the preservation of bison in mind, he drafted parts of the bill that created the National Zoo, which passed in 1889. Congress voted to give $200,000 to establish the zoo, with its leading purpose to be, as Hornaday put it, "the preservation and breeding in comfortable, and so far as space is concerned, luxurious captivity of a number of fine specimens of every species of American quadruped now threatened with extermination."

Hornaday strongly disagreed with Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley, however, as to the design of this new zoo. Hornaday invented the concept of what is now commonly referred to as a bio-park - not animals in cages, but rather animals enclosed in scaled-down versions of their natural habitat. In his own words, "If an animal will not live happily in captivity, do not keep it in captivity." Hornaday resigned his post at the National Zoo in 1890 over this disagreement, but he went on to become the Director of the Bronx Zoo in 1896, a position he held for the next 30 years, until his retirement in 1926. During his tenure there, Hornaday fashioned a fairly successful breeding program for the American bison. Several of the bison that the zoo bred were released into refuges in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Many of the bison that are alive today are descendants of these animals.

Without a doubt, the animal that Hornaday fought most to save was the American bison, but by no means did his efforts end there. He helped pass many laws after becoming a trustee of the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund (which was designed to use finances from donors to fight big business around the world in the behalf of wildlife), including the Bayne Law (1911 - prohibited the sale of native wild game in New York State), the Fur Seal Treaty (1912), and the Federal Migratory Bird Law (1913). He also wrote many books, including The Extermination of the American Bison, on which this report is partially based.

In order to help save a species from extinction, you must first determine what the causes were that brought it to the brink. Hornaday shared his thoughts on this:

The causes which led to the practical extinction (in a wild state, at least) of the most economically valuable wild animal that ever inhabited the American continent, are by no means obscure. It is well that we should know precisely what they were, and by the sad fate of the buffalo be warned in time against allowing similar causes to produce the same results with our elk, antelope, deer, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goat, walrus, and other animals. It will be doubly deplorable if the remorseless slaughter we have witnessed during the last twenty years carries with it no lessons for the future. A continuation of the record we have lately made as wholesale game butchers will justify posterity in dating us back with the mound-builders and cave-dwellers, when man's only known function was to slay and eat.

The causes Hornaday mentions, as you are no doubt curious:

  1. Man's reckless greed, his wanton destructiveness, and improvidence in not husbanding such resources as come to him from the hand of nature ready made.
  2. The total and utterly inexcusable absence of protective measures and agencies on the part of the national Government and of the Western States and Territories.
  3. The fatal preference on the part of hunters generally, both white and red, for the robe and flesh of the cow over that furnished by the bull.
  4. The phenomenal stupidity of the animals themselves, and their indifference to man.
  5. The perfection of modern breech-loading rifles and other sporting fire-arms in general.


Several factors saved the American bison from its fate, and I believe it may fairly be said that the big four are: 1) the Endangered Species Act 2) our National Park system, especially Yellowstone National Park, 3) ranchers who maintained their own private herds, and 4) zoos, who helped to breed the bison in captivity.

  1. As for the first, the Endangered Species Act, it officially came in late in the game (1973). However, the act was a long time in the making and it really only brought together in an organized manner a movement that began with Hornaday. Before the act, laws protecting any animal were written and enforced on a state to state basis, and poorly, I might add. It was nearly impossible to adhere to, or enforce these laws, when they changed every time you'd cross a state line.

    By the time the Act passed, the plains bison had recovered enough that it was no longer considered endangered or threatened. Officially, the wood bison were designated as an Endangered Species in 1978; they were subsequently downlisted to Threatened a decade later, in 1988. These protections helped shield the bison by making it illegal to hunt wild herds.

  2. The second, our National Park system was instrumental in the preservation of the species. President Theodore Roosevelt christened Yellowstone National Park as this nations' first national park on March 1, 1872. Wild animals in Yellowstone, which also serves as a wildlife preserve, are protected from hunters, and their stock of large mammals includes not just the bison but also bears, elk and moose.

    The extermination of the bison occurred systematically, starting in the east, and gradually pushing the herds westward until all the plains bison that were left had congregated in the region of the park. When the bison's extinction appeared imminent, Yellowstone imported bison from the stock of rancher's private herds.

  3. There were ranchers who sought to maintain private herds for use as cattle before the extermination, but the practice really took off when their numbers started to dwindle. Ranchers would augment their stock of domestic cattle with separate herds of bison, to maintain the purity of the breed, but also to sometimes crossbreed the two. A bull bison and a domestic cow were used to create a "beefalo", or a "cattalo", designed with the hardiness of the bison in mind, to better survive harsh weather. These private herds have maintained the numbers of captive bison to this day.

  4. Zoos. This one is obvious, but zoos across America have also helped to maintain stocks of captive bison.

Current Status

So, here is a brief summary of the current status of the American bison. In 1974, the total number of bison that could be found privately and in the wild, combined, was 30,000. Today, there are approximately 300,000 privately owned bison in North America, sold mostly for meat, but also their hides for leather; however we are primarily concerned with the wild population in this report. There are 10,000 plains bison left in national, state and local preserves in the United States, and about 3,000 wood bison that roam on public lands in Canada, most of which are in Wood Buffalo National Park of northern Alberta, and Elk Island National Park, just north-east of Edmonton, Alberta.


Current trends indicate a rekindling of interest in the bison for its meat, being of such high quality. Bison meat contains a very low 2.42 grams of fat (per 100 grams of cooked lean meat), as compared to deer (venison) at 3.19, turkey at 4.97, chicken at 7.41, pork at 9.66, or beef at 9.28. Calories also are low at 143, compared to 158 for deer, 170 for turkey, 190 for chicken, and 211 for beef and pork. Cholesterol is on par at 82 mg., when compared to 86 for beef and pork, chicken at 89, turkey at 76, and 112 for deer.

What is worrisome about this is our history as a greedy, gluttonous people. The problem is that of sheer quantity, as is the case with most endangered species. With the millions of people who might want them, the 300,000 in the hands of ranchers won't last long. And that doesn't bode well for their wild brothers. As our current administration (Bush Jr.) is striving to repeal all the environmental protections it can (think ANWR), who is to say the wild population is safe? In case you have any illusion of that, keep reading.

The population of bison in Yellowstone National Park is the closest thing that we have to the bison of Hornaday's time, genetically and behaviorally speaking, and I think it safe to say that we would not have the Yellowstone herd if not for the protection that the park has offered them over the years, and even today, if that protection were repealed, it would doom the herd. Not long ago, just February 1997, CNN reported that the park feared that bison were once again threatened with extinction. When the winter settles in, the bison's instinct tells him to migrate to better feeding grounds, outside of the protection of the park. Due to laws that allow the killing of individuals that stray outside of the boundaries of Yellowstone into neighboring states, the park's bison population fell to approximately 1,200 - 1,500 in 1997, down from 3,500 in just the previous year. Just within this past year (in 2002), the National Park Service themselves sent 200 bison to be slaughtered, most of which had not yet crossed the boundary of the park.

I don't believe that anyone has a valid reason to kill a bison, even if it exits the park. People will use any excuse necessary to justify their secret agendas. The current justification is the fear that bison, which can be carriers of brucellosis, will infect rancher's domestic cattle. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can cause domestic cows to abort their calves, but has relatively little effect on the bison. But the fact is that there has never been even one single case of a wild, free-range bison ever transmitting brucellosis to domestic cattle.

In 1974, when it was estimated that as many as 60% of the Yellowstone herd were infected with brucellosis (or Bang's disease), the United States Department of Agriculture, along with local ranchers, asked that those infected be destroyed - although studies for the vaccination of brucellosis are ongoing to this day, there has been no success in finding one for bison. The park refused. If they had not, their fate might have been sealed that very day.

"But, as yet, the American people have not learned to spend money for the protection of valuable game; and by the time they do learn it, there will be no game to protect." -- William Temple Hornaday

Before Hornaday's time, a hunter seldom had to walk more than 3 miles to find a bison. Nowadays, most people would have to travel to Wyoming to see one, and that isn't always a guarantee. There is little hope of the bison ever returning to the numbers or the state in which he previously existed - this country, now overpopulated with people has little room for them - perhaps the best that can be hoped for is to try to conserve what we have left.

What shall be our excuse, when by the building of housing developments and the further infestation of mankind, when we encroach so far into nature that we kill off the animals that we consider common today - the rabbit, the raccoon, the fox? What shall our justification be? Impossible? Such has been said ad nauseam in the past two hundred years about the passenger pigeon, the labrador duck, the great auk.

The American bison were so numerous that our ignorance never permitted many Americans to perceive that one day we'd be in our current situation. No longer does the bison roam wild and free in large herds throughout the American countryside, but is relegated to an amusement park attraction at our national parks. Seeing a wild bison outside of one of these parks is such a rare occurrence as to generate much talk and disbelief.

With the extinction of the buffalo hunters dies the deceitful excuse of loosing ones livelihood in the only trade for which they are currently skilled. For whether our government declares a species protected, or hunters exterminate a race, they are doomed to search for a new occupation eventually. It is simply easier to put the blame on society rather than search out new and innovative ways to contribute to it. Any jobs lost over the protection of nature can be made up in creating an eco-trourism industry, which has proven to be quite lucrative for many countries. Hornaday said:

During the existence of the buffalo it was declared by many an impossibility to stop or prevent the slaughter. Such an accusation of weakness and imbecility on the part of the General Government is an insult to our strength and resources. The protection of game is now and always has been simply a question of money. A proper code of game laws and a reasonable number of salaried game-wardens, sworn to enforce them and punish all offenses against them, would have afforded the buffalo as much protection as would have been necessary to his continual existence. To be sure, many buffaloes would have been killed on the sly in spite of laws to the contrary, but it was wholesale slaughter that wrought the extermination, and that could easily have been prevented.
...It was these wholesale hunters, both in the North and the South, who exterminated the species, and to say that all such undertakings could not have been effectually prevented by law is to accuse our law-makers and law officers of imbecility to a degree hitherto unknown. There is nowhere in this country, nor in any of the waters adjacent to it, a living species of any kind which the United States government can not fully and perpetually protect from destruction by human agencies if it chooses to do so.

Indeed, as Hornaday had predicted, the last of the truly wild bison died long ago. And while their wild cousins may be extinct, I think our efforts should be directed to the proper maintenance of the Yellowstone herd. For over a century, this herd has been contained in the park, and remains the least effected by the industrialization of America. While they may have lost many of the majestic characteristics Hornaday found so endearing, the isolation of this herd makes it the closest thing to the wild bison of the past that we can hand down to posterity.

The best way to help the American bison, and other animals that depend on truly wild places, is to make sure those wild places get the money and the protection they need. Over one hundred years after Hornaday began his efforts, bison are still not out of the water. They need conservation, and your help in securing it. If you are as concerned as I am, I ask you to send a letter to your politicians, informing them of this problem, and ask that they support legislation to protect this species, and to end the slaughter of the Yellowstone herd.

Another wonderful thing you can do is to spread the knowledge and the joy of watching wildlife to others, who will in turn spread it to others. Still another way to help is to support places like Vital Ground (http://www.VitalGround.org), who use membership dues to buy up wild land to leave it set aside for grizzly bears, who are an umbrella species - if the land is wild enough for a grizzly bear, it is also wild enough to support many other kinds of wildlife.


Vanishing Wildlife of North America --Thomas B. Allen
WorldBook Encyclopedia (2001)
The Extermination of the American Bison --William Temple Hornaday