Guardian of the West
No other animal symbolizes the American West and the Great Plains as much as the American Bison (Bison bison). Sometimes informally referred to as buffalo, bison are formidable beasts and the heaviest land animals in North America.
Bison once covered the Great Plains and much of North America and were critically important to Plains Indian societies. During the 19th century, colonizers killed an estimated 50 million bison for food, sport, and to deprive Native Americans of their most important natural asset. The once enormous herds were reduced to only a few hundred animals.
Today, bison numbers have rebounded thanks in large part to Yellowstone National Park, the only place where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Today, about 500,000 bison live on public land, preserves, and game ranches.
These large grazers feed on plains grasses, herbs, shrubs, and twigs. Just like cows, they regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before final digestion. Unlike domestic cattle, bison saliva stimulates plant growth in the areas where they graze.
Bison stand ~5 to 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder and can tip the scales at over a ton. Despite their massive size, bison are quick on their feet. When the need arises, they can run at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. They sport curved, sharp horns that may grow to be two feet long.
During rut, mature males display their dominance by bellowing, wallowing, and engaging in fights. The winners earn the right to mate with females. Bison calves tend to be born from late March through May and are orange-red in color, earning them the nickname “red dogs.”
Did you know that you can judge a bison’s mood by its tail? When it hangs down and switches naturally, the bison is usually calm. If the tail is standing straight up, it may be ready to charge, so watch out!