American bison (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Bison bison) are perhaps North America’s most iconic land mammal, in spite of nearly being hunted to extinction. Long ago these impressive beasts (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “buffalo“) roamed the continent in vast numbers. Prior to European settlement it’s estimated that about 60 million ranged from Alaska all the way into Mexico and east to the Appalachian Mountains. Early explorers reported herds so large they extended into the horizon. Their numbers were so impressive they made the air resound with thunder from the stampede of their innumerable hooves. They flourished in open grasslands, savannas, and even woodlands and deserts that supported sufficient grasses to eat. Historically they were of great importance to a number of Native American tribes who relied upon them for food and considered them sacred.
By the year 1800 it was estimated that the population of American bison had declined to about 30 million. The nineteenth century, however, would see them nearly annihilated. Citizens of the rapidly expanding United States wanted Native Americans removed from desirable land, and eliminating their food source seemed like a reasonable means to an end. A concentrated effort by the American government and settlers to eradicate bison resulted in the slaughter of millions of animals. Sport hunters eager for trophies and ranchers eager to clear the land for cattle also contributed to their decimation.
By 1890 only a few hundred bison remained, found in the relative safety of the then-new Yellowstone National Park. In only a few decades European-American settlers had nearly eradicated an abundant keystone species, starved Native Americans into submission, and terraformed the Great Plains into vast farms and grazing land for imported cattle.
Throughout the twentieth century the population of American bison rebounded somewhat. Today it’s estimated that about 500,000 of these animals can be found in North America, although the majority of them have been cross-bred with cattle for the meat industry. The only genetically-pure animals that remain are found on public lands including Yellowstone, Theodore Roosevelt, Wind Cave, and Badlands National Park. Although they only number in the tens of thousands of individuals, their populations have been carefully increased. In recent years excess animals have been relocated to other public and Native American lands in an effort to establish and develop new herds.
It’s important to note that although these majestic animals are enchanting, they are also dangerous. Bison are the largest land mammals in North America and one of the deadliest to humans. They can reach a ton (nearly 1000 kg) in weight and bear sharp horns and hooves. People have been killed by them. It’s important that people visit these animals in the wild and take an interest in their recovery, but it’s also important that people respect their strength and natural tendency to defend themselves. Getting killed or injured by a bison won’t do much to help public sympathy for these threatened animals.