Perhaps no other animal symbolizes the West as dramatically as the American bison. In prehistoric times millions of these animals roamed the North American Continent from the Great Slave Lake in northern Canada, south into Mexico and from coast to coast. No one knows how many bison there were, but the naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton, estimated their numbers at sixty million when Columbus landed. They were part of the largest community of wild animals that the world has ever known. The National Park Service has played an important part in returning the bison to the Great Plains. Click here to view the YouTube video Restoring the Thunder: Bison conservation in the Great Plains National Parks about the restoration of the American bison to the Great Plains.
Explore the Time Line of the American Bison created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bison are part of the family Bovidae, to which Asian buffalo, African buffalo and domestic cattle and goats belong. Because American bison resembled in some ways old world buffalo (Asian and African buffalo), early explorers to North America began to call them buffalo. Although it is a misnomer, the name buffalo is still used interchangeably with bison. One of the physical differences between the old world buffalo and the American bison is the large shoulder hump of the bison. This hump, along with a broad, massive head, short, thick neck and small hindquarters give the animal its rugged appearance.
The color and character of the bison's fur varies with the season. A mature bull in winter has a dark brown to black coat. The length of the hair measures up to sixteen inches on the forehead, ten inches on the forelegs, and only eight inches on the hindquarters. It is little wonder that bison, unlike domestic cattle, face into storms.