American Bison

Bos bison

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large, dark bison in snowy field
Noppadol Paothong
Species of Conservation Concern
Family

Bovidae (cattle, sheep, antelopes) in the order Artiodactyla

Description

The largest mammal that still survives in North America, the bison today lives in wild and semi-wild herds on private ranges and on public lands. Bison have a dark brown, shaggy coat. The head and front portion of the animal are massive. Both sexes have short, upcurved horns. Juveniles are lighter in color.

Size

Height: 6 feet; length: 10 feet; weight: 900–2,200 pounds.

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Bison at Dunn Ranch
Bison at Dunn Ranch

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Photo of an American bison grazing in a prairie
American Bison
An American bison grazes at Prairie State Park, Barton County.
Habitat and conservation

Apparently, by the time immediately before European settlement, bison occurred sporadically in Missouri and were never abundant here. By 1840 only remnants of these magnificent animals were found in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state, and these soon disappeared. Overhunting by white Americans was the central reason for the bison’s extirpation. In addition, cattle competed for prairie grass, and plowing and fire suppression destroyed the bison’s prairie habitat.

Foods

Bison are ruminants (their digestive systems are like those of cattle) and are grazers of grasslands, eating grasses, sedges, and other plants. Because their herds can completely graze an area quickly, they migrate constantly to ungrazed areas.

image of American Bison Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

A small herd of about 100 bison live at Prairie State Park in Barton County. Others live on private ranches.

Status

Extirpated from Missouri, but bison have been reintroduced to Prairie State Park, and this herd is considered wild, as these animals reproduce naturally and graze freely. Bison are also raised in captivity by some individuals, who market their meat.

Life cycle

Bison herds each have a distinct social hierarchy, with both males and females competing for status. Males acquire harems of females and chase away rival males. Mating occurs in late summer, and one calf is born the following spring. Calves nurse for a year, becoming mature at age 3. At this time, males leave their mothers and live alone or join a bachelor herd. Upon breeding season, herds of males and females approach each other again.

Human connections

For Indians, the bison provided food, shelter, clothing, and utensils, and on the treeless prairie the dried “buffalo chips” served as fuel. White settlers overhunted bison for meat, hides, and sport. Today, the remnants of the once-spectacular herds inspire us to take better care of the environment.

Ecosystem connections

It’s hard to imagine the vast expanse of native grassland that once spread across America, or the bison that were its primary herbivore. Their thundering herds left an enduring mark on the landscape. In prehistoric times, bison were an important food for large predators such as saber-toothed cats.