Official State Animal for Kansas and Wyoming

The Bison

The American buffalo or bison became the official animal symbol for Kansas in 1955, and of Wyoming in 1985. This magnificent beast should not be confused with the buffalo of Africa or Asia. The water-buffalo of Asia and the African buffalo are not related to the American buffalo. It is believed the name 'buffalo' came from the habit of the early French traders of calling the creature 'boeuf' meaning 'ox'. Its scientific name is Bison bison.

The bison is the largest land animal in the Western Hemisphere. It once roamed the prairies in its millions (estimated 50 million) but were reduced to an estimated 300 to 500 before legislation was passed in 1889 imposing stricter game laws. The bison has played a huge role in American history. The American Indians of the plains were reliant on the bison for survival. Because it supplied them with food, clothing and shelter, it also became a powerful spiritual symbol.

As early as the mid 1800s, bison and domestic cattle were being crossed. The original offspring were called cattalo. In 1888, Charles Jesse 'Buffalo' Jones was also trying to breed cattalo. One of the hopes was that the new breed would survive the blizzards which decimated cattle herds. However bison bulls over domestic cows resulted in few calves. Domestic bulls over bison cows produced fertile heifers but infertile bull calves. There was very little success until 1965 when a fertile hybrid bull was born. The breed became known as 'beefalo'.

Crossing the bison with domestic cattle is one occasion when such a crossing has produced acceptable attributes from both parents. Hardiness, ease of calving, meat quality and foraging abilities inherited from the bison have teamed with better fertility, better milk production and a calmer temperament provided by domestic cattle breeds. A bonus was hybrid vigour and genetic strength. The true beefalo is 3/8 bison and 5/8 bovine. Angus, Brahman and Hereford were some of the first breeds tried followed by Droughtmaster and Brangus. These latter two are 'man-made' breeds developed by crossing other breeds.

Bison(56068)Credit: Wikimedia

Bison are great foragers and thrive on land unsuited to cattle. Severe climatic conditions over many centuries have produced genetically sound, physically tough animals. These attributes have been passed on to the beefalo. The beefalo has a double coat and more sweat glands giving them a greater tolerance of extremes of temperature. A strong constitution, foraging ability, disease resistance, quieter disposition and adaptability lessens time and money spent on husbandry. Faster growth rates and longer productive life mean more income for the rancher. Lower levels of cholesterol and fat, higher protein levels and low rates of marbling add up to a healthier product for consumers. There is good conversion of even poor quality roughage into meat.

Native Americans have always been aware of the great attributes of the bison. They were, and are, also very respectful of the land. They killed only enough bison to supply what they needed at the time. Any meat which couldn't be eaten was cut into strips before being smoked and dried. This preserved the meat and made it easier to transport. Pemmican was made by grinding some of this 'jerky' into powder and mixing it with wild berries.

The hides of the buffalo were crucial to the Indians to supply clothing, moccasins, shields, bedding and materials from which to fashion their tepees. Ornaments, toys, arrow-heads and medicines were made from the horns. The blood was used in puddings, soups and for painting. Bones became arrow-heads, shovels, tools and weapons. When white settlers started moving into the bison's habitat they were much more wasteful. Although they too ate the meat and utilised the hides, they came to view the bison as a nuisance. Bison were killed simply because there were too many of them (so it seemed). They ate grass that could be feeding cattle and they interfered with the smooth running of the railways. Ranchers were greedy for more and more land for raising cattle. It was also hoped that by getting rid of the bison, the Native Americans would be crippled and forced from their lands.

Bison(56071)Credit: Wikimedia

The bison is one of the largest cattle species in the world. Their flesh is similar to beef and the diet identical although bison do well on much poorer grazing than most cattle. Their foraging ability is also better. Adult bison may be as tall as two metres at the shoulder and males can weigh up to 1,000 kgs. Females are generally lighter. Although so weighty, the bison is very fast and has enormous strength. The male bison cannot lift its head above the shoulders because of the weight of the head whereas the female can as its head is lighter. Bison are about three metres long. The head is massive and there is a hump over the shoulders. The body is incredibly muscular. The fur covering the head, neck and forequarters is shaggy and dark brown in winter. It is shed in summer becoming short and light brown. The rest of the body has a woolly covering of dark brown hair. In addition, the bison has a black beard under the chin.

Both sexes have short horns which curve forward from the forehead. The horns measure about eight inches. White buffalo are not unheard of and were regarded as especially sacred by the Native Americans.

Under natural conditions, bison migrate in spring and fall. During the summer, they travel in small groups. They face into a storm rather than turning their tails to it like many mammals. When the mating season arrives, there is fierce fighting among the males. The gestation period is roughly 9 ½ months and one calf is born. The calf is a yellowish-brown and has a red stripe down the back. It will not be fully mature until it is 5 or 6 years old. The life span is 15 to 20 years.

When bison numbers dropped so low in 1889, James Phillip, a rancher from South Dakota, built up a small herd. The National Zoo was created and a few moved there to form a new herd. The bison is now protected by law. It seems that the bison has been saved from extinction for now. It would certainly be shameful if this magnificent beast was to disappear.