DescriptionThe North American species, better known as buffalo, has short, black, curved horns; a beard, shoulder hump, short tail; and long, shaggy, woolly hair on the shoulders, 4 legs, head and throat. Bulls attain adult size at 6-8 years; cows, at approximately 4 years.
BisonBison are hoofed MAMMALS of the cattle family (Bovidae), classified by mammalogists in to 2 species, European bison (Bison bonasus) also known as wisent, and the American bison (Bison bison). Although the latter species has been split into 2 subspecies, the prairie bison and the wood bison, but a critical reexamination of the evidence provides no taxonomic evidence that these subspecies are valid.
The North American species, better known as buffalo, has short, black, curved horns; a beard, shoulder hump, short tail; and long, shaggy, woolly hair on the shoulders, 4 legs, head and throat. Bulls attain adult size at 6-8 years; cows, at approximately 4 years. Bison can live in excess of 20 years.
The northern bison are larger in body than the southern bison, but so are other ungulate species such as MOOSE, WAPITI and DEER. Body size in ungulates and WOLVES increases with latitude up to 65° N, but reverses thereafter. The coat patterns as described for the wood bison appear to be an artifact of captivity in ELK ISLAND NATIONAL PARK, which in similar fashion, also affects wapiti and moose. There is evidence that bison vary in shape and appearance with environmental conditions, and these changes have no taxonomic significance. Genetically the Canadian bison are descendents of the old American and much larger specie Bison antiquus; it dwarfed post-glacially to its current size.
Bison were virtually eliminated in the wild state by the turn of the century, with some 23 surviving in Yellowstone National Park (northwestern US), and 300-500 bison surviving in what came to be WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK. These plus another 88 bison, mainly calves, captured between 1873-89, are the ancestors of today's herds. Thus today's North American bison descended from probably less than 400 individuals.
Bison fell victim primarily to US military policy as their presence ensured the existence of hostile Native tribes that had proved very difficult to defeat by conventional means. The extermination of the US herds ensured the loss of Canadian bison as well. Commerce built on the sale of bison products flourished for about half a century. It was extended to other species as bison became scarce. In addition to the commercial harvest there was competition with the ever-increasing feral herds of mustangs.
The Canadian government bought the famous Pablo/Allard herd in Montana and transferred the animals to Bison National Park (no longer in existence) and Elk Island National Park. When bison outstripped their range, the Canadian government shipped the bison, by then infected with livestock diseases, to Wood Buffalo National Park. Controversy surrounded this decision then as now. Plans to save the wood bison in modern times were laudable but based on bad taxonomy.
Bison are scarce in the archaeological record prior to 1492. Their populations expanded swiftly after Aboriginal peoples were decimated by Eurasian diseases and genocide. Huge herds of bison grazed the PRAIRIES and, by their somewhat unpredictable, swift movements, offered periods of feast or famine for their predators. Bulls and cows were segregated; bulls were less mobile, congregating on choice feeding areas, and were more likely to stand against predators. Herds were food for wolves, plains grizzlies and scavengers, as well as for PLAINS NATIVE PEOPLES and Métis. They also fed white settlers in the 19th century.
The bison's excellent meat and superb hide, combined with its winter hardiness and unequalled ability to exist and even gain weight on poor forage, prompted attempts at domestication and cross-breeding with cattle. Male "cattalo" were found to be sterile, but females make excellent, long-lived, breeding stock. Experimental work on cattalo was unsuccessful, because of male sterility and market requirements for fatter meats. Today, leaner meat is increasing in popularity, and interest in bison ranching has increased.