As the continent’s largest mammal, bison are majestic, incredible animals that have long called North America home and were declared the national mammal for the United States in 2016. But after European colonization of the Americas, the population of these animals decreased dramatically. In less than a century, the bison population in North America went from roughly sixty million to under a thousand. Thanks to a campaign to save the species and the advent of the National Park Service, bison now live in all fifty states and the largest wild population currently lives in Yellowstone National Park.
Bison, Bison, Buffalo?
The Bovidae family includes a range of cloven-hoofed ruminant species, including the easily confused bison and buffalo. While many will use these two terms interchangeably, there are many differences between the two species! There are two main wild species of buffalo, the African/Cape buffalo and the endangered Asian water buffalo. There are also two main bison species, the American bison and European bison. In general, bison are much larger than their buffalo counterparts and also have large humps on their shoulders, beards, and thick coats they shed every year in the spring.
Bison are enormous, sometimes reaching a height of 6.5 feet and a weight of 2,000 pounds. As ruminants, bison have a complex digestive system that allows them to get nutrition from hard, dry forage. They tend to prefer eating young, tender grasses and can eat 30+ pounds of grass in a single day. Their large shoulder hump is comprised of muscles and long vertebrae, which allows them to use their heads as snowplows during the winter. While that large hump helps bison in many ways, it doesn’t stop them from ‘wallowing’, a behavior that involves rolling on the dry ground in a dust bath. Wallowing is great for helping with skin irritations, like helping to shed a winter coat, itching any insect bites, and even helping to create a protective layer of dirt.
What Happened to American Bison?
Before European settlers and colonization, there were an estimated thirty to sixty million bison living in North America. An 1876 map that was commissioned by the Kentucky Geological Survey shows where bison once roamed. But thanks to an intense campaign from the US government and early white settlers, the bison population was systemically decimated and nearly went extinct. Unlike indigenous peoples, white folks who hunted bison during this time valued and used very little of the bison they killed. A National Parks Service article about bison in the Badlands describes the situation, saying that
“While the Lakota utilized every part of the animal, this systematic hunting resulted in a lot of waste – Euro-Americans used only hides, which could be sold as robes or rugs, and tongues, which could be sold as a delicacy. Although this hunting was for often for sport, there was a secondary motive: the US government wanted to disrupt and disband Native American ways of life, and one way to do that was to kill off bison, which were central to the culture and well-being of many plains tribes.”
Yellowstone National Park
As the first national park in the United States, Yellowstone has played a vital role in wildlife conservation and environmentalism. For North American bison, this park is the only place in the United States where they’ve lived since prehistoric times and it is home to the largest bison population on public land. While the park has been important for wild bison, there have been controversies around the management of these animals over the last 100 years.
For example, bison in the Great Yellowstone Ecosystem carry brucellosis, a disease that can be transmitted to livestock and has been known to cause birthing issues in infected animals. Because of the economic impact of brucellosis, park and state wildlife officials went to great lengths to prevent bison from mixing with cattle, including killing 3,100 bison between 1985 and 2000. Additionally, bison are migratory animals but the continent has changed drastically in the last 150 years. What was once a more open continent is now a maze of fenced pastures, houses, and highways. Finding a way for these large mammals to coexist with humans and domestic animals has proven to be a challenge but there are many people dedicated to the conservation of this American icon.
Helen the Blind Bison
Located in Scio, Oregon, the Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary is home to many rescued farm animals. One lucky animal to call the farm home for many years was Helen, the blind bison. Helen had been saved by someone who went on to take care of her for more than a decade. But when Helen’s person became sick and unable to continue caring for her, the bison needed a new place to live. In stepped Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary, the largest and oldest farm animal rescue nonprofit in Oregon.
Helen hadn’t spent too much time with other animals before arriving at Lighthouse and spent her first year there nervous around the other animals and seemingly lonely. But that changed when a pregnant cow was rescued and gave birth to Oliver at the farm. The moment he was big enough to start exploring, he made his way to Helen’s field and a deep connection between the two was instantaneous. Eventually, Helen started making other friends at the farm, like Uma the pig. Sadly, Helen crossed the rainbow bridge just a few weeks into 2022. She was roughly 21 years old when she passed but had a life full of love, light, and friends (plus a few flower crowns).
Where Can You See Bison?
While these iconic animals are majestic and incredible, it’s important to remember that they are still wild animals. If you do come across a bison in the wild, keep your distance. Because of their wild, unpredictable behavior, visitors to national parks are required to stay at least 75 feet away from bison. Remember, these animals are massive, quick, and agile, making it more than easy for them to hurt you if they feel threatened.
As far as seeing bison in the wild, Yellowstone is the best place to do so. Other protected locations include Antelope Island State Park in Utah, National Bison Range in Montana, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and even Catalina Island off the coast of California. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you can also go see bison and many other wild animals (like bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans, and mountain goats) at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville, Washington. There are a few herds that live in the Pacific Northwest, like in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains and on the Yakama Reservation in Washington.
Ultimately, American Bison are large, majestic creatures with an incredibly long and important history in North America. As migratory animals, bison were once found in many different parts of the continent, including on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington, but thanks to a (racist) campaign from the US government, there are only about 31,000 bison left in the wild. Compared to the estimated thirty-sixty million that once existed, today’s population is just a fraction of historical numbers. If you do see a bison in the wild, remember to keep your distance. These animals are incredible but are still wild at heart.
You are aware that the last large herd of bison were killed by the Sioux, aren’t you? In 1882 50,000 animal appeared on the reservation in the Dakota Territory. By 1883 they were all dead, Sitting Bull’s band of Hunkpapa killing the last 1,100. Was that racist?
I did not know about that! But I have a feeling that this comment is less of a teachable moment and more of an attempted gotcha.
As far as your last question – no, it was not. First, that herd accounts for, at most, 0.16% of bison deaths in the 19th century. Second, from my research, it appears that the bison in that herd were hunted in a traditional manner and every part of the animals was used to feed and support people. As a historical marker that now exists in that area says, “the entire tribe worked quickly to butcher and care for the meat. Humps and other tender morsels were removed for immediate feasting, and women sliced the remaining meat into thin sheets to dry and make into pemmican and jerky.” (https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=113254)
Thirdly, the US government sanctioned bison killings and even funded or helped expeditions for this as a way to control and manipulate Indigenous Americans. Millions of bison were solely killed as a way to destroy a valuable resource for indigenous communities, starve millions, and force Native Americans onto reservations. As J Weston Phippen wrote an article for The Atlantic: “the country’s highest generals, politicians, and even then President Ulysses S. Grant saw the destruction of buffalo as solution to the country’s ‘Indian Problem.'” (https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2016/05/the-buffalo-killers/482349/)
Racism, in this context, is a systemic issue. The US government and many of those with any sort of power and money saw marginalized communities (like Native Americans) as “problems” and actively worked to straight up eliminate or beat these communities into submission.