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Home / Hunting / Game Guide / Hoofed Mammals / Bison


Hoofed Mammals
American Bison Bison


The largest terrestrial animal in North America. Dark brown, with shaggy mane and beard. Long tail with tuft at tip. Broad, massive head; humped shoulders; short legs clothed with shaggy hair; large hooves. Both sexes have short black horns with pointed tips that protrude from the top of the head, above and behind the eyes, curving outward, then in. Horn spread to 3’ (90 cm). Juvenile reddish brown; acquires adult coloration at 2–3 months of age. Ht male to 6’ (1.8 m), female to 5’ (1.5 m); L male 10’–12’6” (3–3.8 m), female 7–8’ (2.1–2.4 m); T male 17–19” (43–48 cm), female 12–18” (30–45 cm); HF 20–26” (51–66 cm); Wt male 991–2,000 lb (450–900 kg), female 793–1,013 lb (360–460 kg).


Varies, but most often June–September; 1 (occasionally 2) young born after gestation of 9–9 1/2 months.


Varied; primarily plains, prairies, and river valleys; sometimes forests.


American Bison historically ranged from the Southern Northwest Territories to Northwestern Mexico, Texas, and Mississippi, and then east to Southwestern New York, South Carolina, and Georgia. Today's large, free-ranging herds are found only at Wood Buffalo National Park, Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, and Slave River Lowlands in Northwest Territories, Canada, and in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Smaller free-ranging herds are found in Alaska, Northeastern British Columbia, Northwestern Saskatchewan, and Northwest Territories. There are also smaller herds located in fenced areas throughout North America.


The American Bison is most active in early morning and late afternoon, but sometimes also on moonlit nights. In the midday heat, it rests, chewing its cud or dust-bathing. This animal commonly rubs its horns on trees, thrashes saplings, and wallows in the dirt. A good swimmer, it is so buoyant that head, hump, and tail remain above water. American Bison will stampede if frightened, galloping at speeds up to 32 mph (50 km/h). Formerly undertaking annual migrations of 200 miles (320 km) or more between winter and summer ranges, some bison in Canada still travel up to 150 miles (240 km) between wooded hills and valleys. The American Bison feeds on many grasses, sedges, and forbs, and sometimes on berries, lichens, and horsetails; in winter, it clears snow from vegetation with its hooves and head. Vocalizations include the bull’s bellow during rutting, the cow’s snort, and the calf’s bawl.Usually between 4 and 20 bison herd together, with sexes separate except during breeding season, when the herds combine and increase greatly in size; occasionally such herds gather into bands of several thousand. There are three kinds of bison groups: matriarchal (cows, calves, yearlings, and sometimes a few bulls), bull (though some bulls are solitary), and breeding (a combination of matriarchal and bull groups). A matriarchal group is relatively stable and often ranges from about 11 to 20 individuals. A bull group is smaller, and the male bison seems to become more solitary with age. The time and length of the rut varies. The bull enters the matriarchal herd and checks for estrous females. He then displays flehmen and tending behavior. Flehmen consists of curling the lip back and extending the neck; it lasts for several seconds and is thought to enhance the sense of smell. The male “tends” a female by remaining between her and the herd in an attempt to keep the cow isolated. Tending can last from several seconds to several days, and may or may not end in copulation. A female will not always tolerate tending; thus she has a choice of mate. Copulation may be preceded by mutual licking and butting. The male threatens and battles other contenders in his attempt to tend and mate with a cow. Threats usually ward off fights, but if a rival male perseveres, fighting may ensue, involving butting, horn-locking, shoving, and hooking. When butting, males walk to within 20 feet (6 m) of each other, lower their heads, raise their tails, and charge. Their massive foreheads, including much hair but not the horns, collide without apparent injury; they charge repeatedly until one animal gives up. Hooking can be very dangerous, often resulting in injury or death; it consists of using the horns to gore the opponent in the side or belly. During the 24-hour period that a cow is in heat, a bull may mate with her repeatedly. The reddish newborn stands to nurse in 30 minutes, walks within hours, and in one or two days joins the herd with its mother. At two months, hump and horns start to develop. Most young are weaned by late summer; some nurse up to seven months.Life span in the wild averages 25 years. In the 15th century, millions of American Bison grazed from the Atlantic Ocean almost to the Pacific and from Mexico and Florida into Canada. Probably no other animal has been as central to a people’s way of life as was the bison to the Native American, who ate its meat, used the skins for clothing and shelter, fashioned thread and rope from sinew, made glue and tools from the hooves and bones, and burned the droppings as fuel. Although Native Americans occasionally killed more bison than they could use, stampeding thousands over cliffs, they had no significant effect on bison populations. The destruction of the American Bison began about 1830, when U.S. government policy advocated the animal’s extermination in order to subdue hostile tribes through starvation, equating bison carcasses with “discouraged Indians.” Railroad construction crews often subsisted on bison meat, as did some army posts, and the railroad provided a means of shipping hides to eastern marke ts. Ultimately millions of pounds of bison bones were ground into fertilizer or used for the manufacture of bone china. By 1900, fewer than 1,000 American Bison remained, and a crusade of rescue and restoration was begun. Estimates of the number of bison in North America before European settlers arrived range from 30 to 70 million. Today more than 65,000 bison roam U.S. and Canadian national parks and ranges, and privately owned rangelands; few are wild and free-ranging.


Cloven hearts, similar to those of domestic cow, but rounder and somewhat larger, about 5" (125 mm) wide for mature bull. Dewclaws do not print. On hard ground, cleft between facing crescent lobes may not show; tracks may then resemble horse's hoofprints.


In wooded habitat, trees ringed with pale “horn rubs” or “head rubs” where bark is worn away; trampled ground underneath such trees or around rubbed boulders. Wallows: Especially in plains habitat, dusty saucer-like depressions, 8–10' (2.4–3 m) wide, 1' (.3 m) deep, where bison has rolled and rubbed repeatedly, dust-bathing to relieve itching and to rid coat of insects. Bull may urinate in dry wallows, then cake himself with mud as protection against insect pests. Scat: Similar to that of domestic cow; round flat pads, about 10–14” (25–35 cm) in diameter.


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