Bison Boom: How America’s Great Plains Are Coming Back to Life

The bison, a North American icon, has several species and subspecies that boast remarkable evolutionary histories and diverse characteristics.

Bison Species and Subspecies

The bison, a North American icon, has several species and subspecies that boast remarkable evolutionary histories and diverse characteristics.

From the majestic plains bison to the elusive wood bison, these members of the Bovidae family reflect a long lineage of survival and adaptation.

Ancestry and Evolution

The bison’s lineage traces back to the ancient Bison priscus, an ancestor they share with their European counterpart, the wisent.

Over time, these mighty creatures have traversed continents, giving rise to various subspecies.

The American bison, more scientifically referred to as Bison bison, includes both the plains bison and the wood bison.

The former is notably smaller yet more widespread than the latter.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European bison, often called the wisent, stands as another subspecies that has faced and overcome the brink of extinction.

Geographic Distribution

Bison were once prolific across North America and parts of Europe.

Today, bison primarily roam in protected areas and reserves.

The plains bison are primarily found in the United States, particularly in national parks, while the wood bison roams the Canadian North, holding the title as the largest land mammal of North America.

The European bison, wisent, has a more restricted range, found in woodland reserves across continental Europe.

Physical Characteristics

Standing up to six feet tall at the shoulder, these hefty beasts can weigh up to a ton, with males being generally larger than females.

The plains bison is characterized by a smaller hump and less hair compared to its northern relative, the wood bison, which has a larger shoulder hump and thicker coat to endure colder climates.

The European bison sports a lighter build, with less pronounced shoulders.

One thing they all have in common is their thick fur and the iconic beard, a favorite among bison aficionados.

Habitat and Behavior

A herd of bison roam the open grasslands, grazing peacefully as they move together in a cohesive group.</p><p>Some bison are resting while others are engaging in social grooming behaviors

Bison, often referred to as buffalo, are iconic symbols of the vast grasslands of North America, particularly the Great Plains.

These majestic animals are not to be confused with true buffalo species found in Asia and Africa.

Bison are known for their impressive size, with mature bulls boasting massive heads, thick coats, and sturdy horns.

These impressive grazers have adapted to a variety of habitats, ranging from Alaska in the far north down to Mexico in the south.

Historically, bison herds roamed across the lands in enormous numbers, shaping the ecosystems they inhabited.

Female bison, or cows, and their calves often move together in herds, while bulls may either join these herds or lead solitary lives.

During the winter, these animals showcase their ruggedness, using their large heads and horns to move snow aside in search of food.

Their diet mainly consists of grasses and sedges, which requires them to cover large areas in their constant quest for grazing opportunities.

The resilience of bison is exemplified by their ability to run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, even in deep snow.

Behavioral studies, such as this research, indicate that bison’s foraging and wallowing behavior are far from random; rather, they reflect complex decision-making skills.

Mating season, also known as the rut, is a particularly interesting time to observe bison.

Mature bulls exhibit dramatic courtship displays and fierce competitions for the right to mate with females.

The social structure of bison is fascinating.

Herds often display a form of democracy, making group decisions on movements and actions.

Bison also have a unique behavior known as wallowing where they roll in dirt depressions.

This helps them shed fur and deter insects.

Through their grazing, bison play a critical role in the health of grasslands, supporting an array of other wildlife species.

For more detailed insights into their habitat preferences, Behavioral habitat selection of wood bison in boreal forests and Effects of snow and landscape attributes on bison winter travel patterns and habitat use provide comprehensive analyses based on habitat selection and how various environmental factors affect their movements.

Conservation and Interaction

Bison grazing peacefully in a grassy meadow, interacting with each other and conserving their natural environment

Bison, often referred to as buffalo, have a storied history on the North American plains, intertwining with the lives of Native American tribes and ecosystems.

Once on the brink of extinction due to overhunting and habitat loss, conservation efforts have led to a significant rebound in their numbers.

The National Park Service has played a pivotal role in these efforts, especially with protected herds in places like Yellowstone National Park.

Native to the grasslands of North America, bison are an iconic symbol of the West.

Their conservation status, once dire, has improved, but they are not completely out of the woods.

The IUCN Red List classifies several subspecies, alerting to varying conservation needs.

For instance, the wood bison, a subspecies present in Alberta and Saskatchewan, is subject to stringent protection measures.

Successful bison conservation provides ecological benefits, as they are keystone species that help maintain prairie biodiversity.

Their grazing patterns aid seed dispersal and soil health.

This, in turn, benefits other prairie-dwelling species, from microorganisms to birds like the Bobolink.

Reserves such as Wind Cave National Park and private ranches contribute to the genetic diversity and management of free-ranging herds.

Recognizing the importance of their relationship with indigenous cultures, some conservation programs collaborate with Native American tribes, allowing them to manage herds, which supports cultural practices and the sustainable use of bison for meat and hides.

However, despite these advances, challenges remain.

Fenced-in reserves and fragmented habitats prevent the natural migration of bison, which can impact their health and breeding.

Diseases from domestic livestock pose a threat, and there’s ongoing tension between maintaining large, free-ranging herds and the interests of agriculture and development on public lands.

Bison have sharp hearing and a keen sense of smell; skills they’ve adapted to survive on the prairies and detect predators.

Their conservation story is one of triumph and continued struggle, navigating a landscape of limited open spaces and the remnants of their once vast domain.