Tuesday, September 24, 2013

American bison

The American bison (Bison bison), also call buffalos (even though very... very distantly related to true buffalo), are often known as the face of the American west. They are one of the few species in North America that are both raised in captivity (not domestic) for their meat and roam in wild herds. Bison can grow to massive sizes, with wild individuals reaching 700 to 2,200 pounds and captive individuals reaching upwards to 3,800 pounds. Males tend to be slightly larger than females.

American bison in Yellowstone National Park
Photo by: Matt Brincka

The American bison roam the plains, sagebrush and lightly wooded areas of the mid-western and western North America. They are migratory, traveling between foraging sites. On average, a herd's daily routine consists of foraging and chewing cud for roughly two hours then traveling to the next site. Sometimes, this traveling can amount to around 2 miles per day. Similar to other herd animals, females live is maternal heard consisting of other females, juveniles, and sometimes elderly males. Males will often leave the materinal herds when they are around three years of age, joining other males in bachelor herds (parrrrtaaay). During the breeding season, males will gather females into a small harem for mating. These bulls will ward off other males who get too close.

American bison often use man made roads as route of easy travel... often delaying traffic.
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Bison partake in a variety of interesting behaviors. During the fall, herds usually wander into more forested areas, preparing for the winter months. at this time, bison partake in a behavior where their rub their horns against aromatic trees, saplings and even utility poles. The tree release an aroma after being horned which is connected providing a deterrent against biting insects. Bison also participate in a wallowing behavior, where they wallow, or roll, in a shallow depression of soil. There are many hypotheses as to why bison wallow, including shedding, rutting, group cohesion, play, scratching their insect bites, removing of ticks, and to keep cool.

Locking horns
Photo by: Matt Brincka

When Columbus first step foot in the New World, there were an estimated 60,000,000 (yes... 60 million) American bison that roamed in herds as far as the eye could see. Many native plain cultures based their societies around the American bison, traveling with the herds, utilizing every part of the animal. When European settlers came, all did not bode well for our friendly, roaming plain goliath. Bison hunting turned into a continent wide cull. In the 1800s, western expansion was in full swing and it has been told that men would sit on the top of trains and shoot the bison herds as they passed. The option to shoot buffalo was often provided by train companies to tourists because they wanted the herds culled. A single bison herd could delay a train for days. The main reason of the American bison decline was because the US Army actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of the herds. Hunters would shoot hundreds of buffalo at a time, skinning them, allowing the meat to rot, then shipping the bones back east. The federal government had multiple reasons to promote the mass cull of bison, but it is said it was mainly to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from the herds and (the probable real reason) to weaken the North American Indian population by removing their main food source.

Wallowing in a dust hole
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Interesting Tid-Bits
  • Sometimes bison give birth to a white juvenile, which are of spiritual significance to Native American culture
  • Several American coins have featured the bison, including the "buffalo nickel" from 1913 to 1938.
  • The city of Buffalo, NY originally was called New Amsterdam and resided on Buffalo Creek.... and yes, New York City was originally named New Amsterdam by Dutch explorers. Well guess what, it was a Holland Land Company that first established the Buffalo - New Amsterdam. Residents of New Amsterdam (Buffalo) didn't like the name much, so in 1808 they renamed their town as the "Village of Buffalo". There are a few theories as to why the village was renamed Buffalo, and it is often disputed. One is it related to a story that stolen horse meat was being passed off as bison flesh, with the area then remembered as "Buffalo," however, there is great skepticism towards this. Another is that the name "Buffalo" is a horrible butchering of the French saying beau fleuve meaning "beautiful river," which was used to describe the Niagara River. Another is that the town was named after Fort Le Boeuf, translated as "Fort Buffalo," but this fort ceased operation years before the settlement of New Amsterdam. All of these theories stem from the belief that the American bison once roamed Western New York, but there are only 1 or 2 historical accounts, which aren't 100% reliable. It is also widely accepted that if bison roamed Western New York, they were extirpated years before colonists made it there. Many believe it is the legend of the American bison that fueled the naming. However, without more historical discoveries that creates an indisputable generation story, the naming of Buffalo, and Buffalo Creek, will forever be debated.

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