Sunday, May 22, 2016

The American Bison - Our National Mammal

By: Peggy L. Henderson

"There is perhaps no other animal that roams in this, or in the wilds of any other country,more fierce and forbidden that a buffalo ... neither the polar bear nor the bengal tiger, surpass that animal in ferocity." Alexander Ross, Fur Trapper 1825

Just last month, the bison has officially been named the National Mammal

Bison have roamed the area known as Yellowstone as long as they roamed the Great Plains in the millions. It was a common belief that the Yellowstone bison were escapees and survivors of the mass slaughter that occurred in the 1800’s on the plains. Actually, the historic Yellowstone bison were a subspecies of that group, and lived there for thousands of years. 
Fur trapper Osborne Russell, has mentioned the large numbers of bison in an area of Idaho, about 30 miles from the present park. Members of the earlier park expeditions commented that "buffalo skulls are strewn by thousands" in the Yellowstone valley about 40 miles north of the park. From these and other accounts of wild bison within what is today the park, and in adjacent areas, dating from 1860 through 1902, it is clear that a great number of bison inhabited the Yellowstone Plateau at all seasons, and long before the killing of the northern herd of Great Plains bison in the early 1880s.
Rifleman shooting bison ca 1880 NPS photo 
After Yellowstone was established as our first national park in 1872, there was no regulation in place for the killing of animals, and poachers freely killed bison. By 1902, less than thirty bison remained.
In 1886, the army took control of Yellowstone, and one of their main objectives was to regulate the killing and decimating of the natural features and wildlife. While the soldiers worked to stop illegal hunting, they were pretty much powerless to do anything other than escort the offenders outside of park boundaries, confiscate their kills, and tell them not to come back. 
One brazen poacher, Ed Howell, came back time and again, and boasted of his exploits. Luckily, this backfired on him when the public finally heard about his poaching activities, and in 1894, the Lacey Act was passed by Congress, making poaching illegal and punishable.
In 1906, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch was established within Yellowstone to preserve the last free-roaming herd in the US. The bison that were brought to the ranch to mix with the last of the native mountain herd were plains bison, and as a result, today’s Yellowstone bison are a hybrid of the two. Still, they are the last genetically pure bison herd in the wild, as most other herds now have some cattle genes in them.
Lamar Buffalo Ranch 1930  NPS photo
By the 1950’s the herd grew to over 600 animals, and ranching was stopped. The bison were set free to once again roam the park. Today, there are two distinct herds in the park – the Lamar herd, and the Mary Mountain herd. Their numbers fluctuate in any given year, but is usually somewhere around 3000 head. 
Seeing bison in their natural habitat is one of the great joys when visiting Yellowstone. What many people need to remember, is that these animals are wild and dangerous.
 Unfortunately, many ignore the warnings, and year after year, injuries and even deaths occur from encounters with bison. 
People have been known to set their children on the backs of bison for a photo op, “bison selfies” have become quite popular in recent years, and this year it has escalated to petting the bison for that perfect picture as well as one well-meaning tourist putting a newborn bison calf in his car because he thought the animal was cold. This particular incident has caused quite an uproar, and I won’t go into the particulars in this post.

bison calves
The best place to see these magnificent animals is in the Hayden and Lamar Valleys. “Bison jams” are a common occurrence, since bison cross and even travel on the park road. 

present day bison jam

Some fun facts about bison:

Bison are the largest mammals in North America

Bison are often called buffalo. What’s the difference? The scientific name for our North American bison is Bison bison. The buffalo is a species in Africa. The word buffalo comes from the French word beouf (beef)

Yellowstone is the only place in America where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times

Baby bison are called “red dogs” because of their red/orange coat color

Bison may look like lumbering beasts, but they can run at speeds up to 35mph

You can judge a bison’s mood by it’s tail – if it’s raised straight up, you’d better look out! He’s gonna charge. If it’s just swishing back and forth, he’s calm and happy.

Peggy L Henderson
Western Historical and Time Travel Romance
“Where Adventure Awaits and Love is Timeless”

Award-Winning Author of:
Yellowstone Romance Series
Teton Romance Trilogy
Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series
Blemished Brides Western Historical Romance Series
Wilderness Brides Historical Romance Series


  1. Dear Peggy: Really enjoyed your post. Always appreciate learning new facts about animals.

  2. Wonderful post, Peggy. The baby bison in the car incident is unreal. I can't imagine anyone being that stupid. I know they were fined, etc., but it doesn't seem enough, especially since the animal had to be euthanized. We were in Grand Canyon this past fall and saw many bison. They are beautiful animals.

  3. Thanks for the great post, Peggy. My husband & I had the astounding experience when one of those bison decided to run alongside our motorcycle near Custer, Wyoming. Exciting, awesome and oh yes, scary! Thankfully we were able to turn away from him without incident.

  4. How interesting. One of the ranches where we used to live had several that we enjoyed seeing as we drove past. Then they were gone. We heard they kept getting sick so it was too expensive to keep them. They are a sight to see and I can imagine how thrill they used to get killing them. So glad that practice is no longer going on. Great post, Peggy.

  5. Terrific post, Peggy. I'm so happy the bison has been declared our national animal. After the horrific destruction of this species by buffalo hunters who took their skins and left them to rot, it's small but important recognition.

  6. Thanks for posting about our national mammal, Peggy. They're a majestic animal and deserve the honor.

  7. One of my favorite topics. Thanks for the exact definition between a bison and a buffalo--I know but I forget. Years ago, we were on a bus tour through some of the National Parks. I was so excited to stay in the old lodge at Yellowstone next to Old Faithful. While on the bus, the driver announced he would pull off so we could get out and take photos of a small herd out in a marshy field. Adults and babies. He warned and warned..DO NOT APPROACH THE BISION--Stay close to the bus. A woman and her grown daughter paid no attention, and off they went, straight for the herd. One of the adults snorted or something, and I'm fairly certain those women wet their pants, for they turned and ran back to the bus. The driver, the tour guide, and even passengers scolded them. What a shame.
    I enjoyed this so much. Thanks

  8. I have seen wild bison from a distance. That was close enough for me. They are so majestic, but I would never trust one not to trample me. I do not understand why people think wild things are somehow going to act like lap dogs. When people don't listen to the rules made to keep them safe, well, they end up getting hurt or killed and I'm not so certain I can sympathize with them.
    You mentioned so many interesting facts. I think the one that astonished me was that only 30 bison survived the killing onslaught. I had no idea it was that severe. When I think of animals that symbolize the west, the bison is the first one on my mind.
    This was a great article, Peggy.

  9. I don't know why people get Buffalo and Bison mixed up. The American Buffalo is a much smaller creature prized for its wings.

  10. I don't know why people get Buffalo and Bison mixed up. The American Buffalo is a much smaller creature prized for its wings.


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