By Gerry Bishop
American bison are the biggest land animals in America. Once, millions of them wandered freely across the continent. Now, only a few thousand are left. But with lots of help, these mighty American beasts are making a comeback.
THE BISON LIFE
Bison spend up to 11 hours a day eating grass and other plants as they walk in herds across hills and valleys. Here are some other things they do.
- Grow a shaggy coat. As winter approaches, bison grow super-thick coats. The coats hold in body heat so well that often snow doesn’t melt on bison backs and faces.
- Shed the shag. In spring, bison shed their shaggy coats in big, messy clumps!
- Talk amongst themselves. Cows and their calves use pig-like grunts to communicate. During mating season, bulls make loud bellowing sounds.
- Plow through snow, head first. Bison use their huge heads as snowplows. (Inside their humps are powerful muscles that drive the “plow.”)
- Fight for mates. A male bison chooses a female for a mate and then tries to keep other males away from her. If necessary, he will charge and butt heads with a challenger.
- Raise a new generation. As spring flowers bloom, so do bison families. Each bison mom gives birth to a single light-colored calf. She feeds her calf and guards it from hungry wolves and grizzly bears.
Around 1800, about 40 million bison lived across North America. The only places they didn’t live were along the coasts and in deserts.
The Great Plains—the vast flatland between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains—had the most bison (see map). The Plains Indians depended on bison for survival. They used the animals’ meat for food; hides for shelter, beds, and coats; bones for tools; even droppings for cooking fuel! Bison were so important that many tribes honored them in songs, dances, and prayers.
Bison were important to the environment, too. As the animals walked along the grassy plains, their hoofs broke up the surface of the soil and pressed plant seeds into the ground. And their manure fertilized the seeds they “planted.” In short, these “four-footed gardeners” helped keep the grasslands growing.
In the 1800s, European settlers who moved west killed millions of bison—way more than the Plains Indians did. As the bison disappeared, the settlers turned the grasslands into farms and ranches, leaving little space for the Indians and their way of life.
Things got worse when a long, terrible dry period hit the Great Plains. During this time and afterward, people kept killing bison for their meat and hides. By 1902, the number of known wild bison was down to 23. These were found in Yellowstone National Park.
The remaining bison in Yellowstone were protected. But people managing the park were worried that this small, wild herd might not survive. Meanwhile, people had been raising bison on private ranches. Some of these bison were brought in to help the Yellowstone herd grow. Then some more ranch-raised bison were moved to other protected areas, where new populations could grow and live wild.
HOME ON THE RANGE
Today there are about 30,000 wild bison in North America. They all live in protected areas such as national parks, state parks, reserves, and tribal lands.
Conservation groups, Native American tribes, and government organizations have begun moving some wild bison to places where they lived long ago so they can make a comeback in those areas, too. The National Wildlife Federation—the group that publishes Ranger Rick—is helping to return wild bison to Indian reservations and a wildlife refuge in Montana. There is much more work to do, but things are looking up for the American bison.
A NATIONAL SYMBOL
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed a law making the American bison the national mammal of the United States. The Wildlife Conservation Society created a seal to celebrate this. Along with the bald eagle, the American bison is now an official symbol of our country—and an important example of how people can help save a species from extinction.
"Back Home on the Range" originally appeared in the December/January 2017 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Click here for a close-up view of the photos.