Some History

Bison can be traced back to the Ice Age. Back then they were called Steppe bison, and they ranged over major parts of northern Europe, Asia and North America. They were, for the most part, larger than today’s bison; mostly to prevent heat loss.

There was little difference between the Steppe bison of Europe/Asia and the bison of North America, but by today’s standards, they were huge. Males had horn spreads reaching more than 6 feet and were as much as 40% larger than today. Also, the vertebral spines in the hump were much longer. Clues have come from frozen mummies found in Alaska and Siberia, others were preserved in the permafrost of the Arctic. Along with size and form, the mummified remains showed patterns of hair distribution, color differences, diet, and disease and in some cases, cause of death.

Scientists who study bison and the Ice Age period have noted that as early as 50,000 years ago, a decline had started in the body size and horn cores due to the changing environmental conditions. They were beginning to look more like our bison of today.

After the Ice Age bison ranged from Alaska to at least the northern tier of Mexican states and from New England to the West Coast, however, they were not evenly distributed. They tended to concentrate and thrive west of the Mississippi where the prairie grasses were abundant.

It was not until 1852 that scientists tried to determine the relationship between the living and extinct bison. They found that because of different plants and environment the European bison was not like the American bison. After 1947, scientists had defined 27 species and subspecies of extinct and living bison in North America. Zoologists, however, have taken it further and decided that there is really only one primary species that evolved varying by a number of factors: region, food, etc.

Bison and Man

Discovery after the drought-stricken Dust Bowl years (1930 to 1940’s) have uncovered evidence of bison kill sites throughout a wide area of the west, from western Canada and the US to Mexico and Central America. As the Spanish traveled across Mexico, they brought horses into the Americas, along with cattle, and other domestic livestock, but it’s the horses that allowed hunters to range much farther to find bison. Very quickly, Indians riders learned to use horses to help stampede bison and also to herd them together. Slaughter would take place basically in one area, leaving bones, etc. as evidence. They also attacked them from horseback using spears, bows, and arrows and sometimes European long guns.

There is very little archeological evidence about bison east of the Mississippi, perhaps due to the difference in habitat and presence of humans. Most seem to have been in small herds.

In the West, bison herds stretched from horizon to horizon and to the Indians, they provided food, raw materials for clothes, tools, etc., as well as a connection with a spiritual universe. However, to the early European explorers, they represented easy wealth, profit and freedom. Conservation to sustain a species didn’t exist, and in the 1880s, bison were almost exterminated! Steam-powered engines in the Industrial Revolution needed leather belts and bison were slaughtered relentlessly for their hides leaving carcasses to spoil and decay. By the end of the Great Slaughter (1860-80’s), the number of bison was reduced to 1000-1500. What started out as over 30 million was now down to a “handful”.

In 1905 the American Bison Society was formed by a small group of influential and wealthy individuals who recognized the importance of saving, protecting and preserving the bison. Consequently, in 1908, the National Bison Range was established. Canada also established preserves to help save the animals from extinction. Many organizations have come and gone, but today hard work by the National Bison Association and the Canadian Bison Association demonstrate the importance and success of the private enterprise to manage bison.

In the first half of the 20th Century though, there was little recognized economic value to bison. The newly created preserves provided the only significant outlet for the excess animals in the private herds. Some were acquired by Yellowstone National Park in 1902 to restock the herd that was nearly wiped out. 34 head was purchased by the American Bison Society in 1909 to serve as a starting point in the National Bison Range and 36 were sold to South Dakota in 1914 to stock the Custer State Game Preserve herd. By the end of the early 1940s, the number had grown to 2500 animals.

There has been a lot written about the restoration of bison from near extinction over the past century, but many of the true pioneers and heroes of the bison recovery are today’s producers and marketers; innovators actively involved in bringing bison back to the pastures, rangelands and dinner tables across this country. Whether operating a chain of bison-centered restaurants or selling packaged meat; producers, big and small, have steadily built this business and have brought the bison back to the American landscape.

Shoppers hold the key to moving the bison recovery forward. Over the past 4 years, growing demand has outweighed the supply. According to the National Bison Association, who surveys major marketers twice a year, total sales in 2014 were 46% higher than 5 years ago.

The growing popularity of bison meat is based partly on the fact that the business is not a commodity industry. Instead bison producers intend to continue restoring bison herds across America by connecting with the consumer who values the natural qualities; first, bison meat is low in fat, high in protein and iron and low in cholesterol. Second, bison is a natural sustainable meat. And third, bison has a great taste and is a very versatile meat.

Characteristics and Behavior

Bison is known as the largest land animal in North America. The average bull weighs about 2000 lbs. and stands about 6′ tall at about 5-6 years of age but there have been recordings of 3500 lb. bulls that stood 7′ tall. Females, known as cows, will only average around 1000 lbs. and stand about a foot shorter.

They are still very large and fast. Average speed is 25-30mph and they can run a sustained pace for hours because of the large windpipe that can exchange a large volume of air in and out of the lungs. They are also very quick and can jump objects 6′  or more in height.

As a herd, they are matriarchal in nature. “She’s the boss” so to speak. Older bulls, 3 years and up, will sometimes hang out in bachelor groups until the breeding season comes along. Bulls will travel for miles when it’s getting close to “low heat”, which can be from early July to late September. The bulls display a courtship behavior hoping to win over a cow, while at the same time trying to keep other suitors away. Occasionally a threat is acted on which turns into an actual clash of bodies which is loud and potentially fatal. They push and shove each other, head to head taking the opportunity to gore the foe with a horn if the chance arises. The fight will continue until one decides he’s had enough!

Bison cows are generally calmer, but not tame or docile. When they calf, they are very protective and will swiftly move the calf away from any danger.

It takes about 9 months before a calf is born, usually April to late June, and are an average of 40-50 lbs. A cow usually breeds for the first time at about the age of 2, and bears her first calf as a 3-year-old. A calf starts to mimic the mother and nibble tender new grass within a week of birth. The red cinnamon color of birth begins to turn chocolate brown around 4 months of age.

Bison seem to be very sensitive to environmental conditions, for example, if there has been a drought, there is a likelihood that many bison cows won’t breed. Normally, cows lose 10-15% of their body weight over the winter, which can be a good thing as it allows for less trouble during calving. Once the calf is born, and a supply of good green grass is available, the cow will add back the pounds very quickly. This is good for the new calf because of the good milk production from the mother, as well as the potential for the cow to breed again. With good nutritional management of the herd, either natural or supplemental, it’s not unusual to have close to 90% breeding rates.

While the bison of “yesteryear” have managed for thousands of years in balancing their diets, today’s bison may have limitations, based on smaller ranges. Even though there may be minerals existing in the soil and therefore the plants and grasses, certain necessary minerals in the water they drink may be lacking. Moving from pasture to pasture and sometimes a free-choice salt block is very helpful in supplementing the minerals required.

Bison are also masters at reading body language. They have had thousands of years to perfect it, and they feel what you feel. When near them move with purpose and never faster than needed or slower than necessary. Movement should show confidence, courage, perfect timing and an understanding of how bison think while associating kindness and consideration for their excitable herd nature.