The great American bison is a truly magnificent animal. It is the largest land mammal found in North America since the end of the Ice Age. This so-called American Buffalo is a descendant of ancient animals that crossed the Bering land bridge some 300,000 years ago.
Technically they are Bison, bison (genus, species). They are not buffalo, as are the African Cape buffalo or the southeast Asian Water buffalo. They have virtually no relatives other than the Wisent, a species of this shaggy animal that lives in north-central Europe and of which there are a limited number.
Before northern Europeans settled North America, there were an estimated 30-70 million bison ranging across the continent, from Alaska to at least the northern tier of Mexican states. The oldest herd fossils remaining in the lower 48 states are more than 100,000 years old.
An important archaeological site in New Mexico, the Folsom Site, revolutionized American archaeology. It was the first time that irrefutable evidence of human tools and Ice Age animals were found together. The site proved to be a bison kill, or bison jump, where Paleo Indians killed and butchered 23 bison nearly 10,000 years ago.
Once the mighty herds stretched in numbers beyond the horizon. To the American Indians, before the arrival of Europeans, these animals provided an unending supply of food and raw material for tools, clothing and other products. Additionally, the bison were considered spiritual beings that sustained the spirit as well as physical life.
According to pioneer journals and scientific guesstimates, bison moved in herds that varied from 500-animals to more than 500,000-animals. To the early European explorers, the bison represented boundless wealth and potential for personal profit and freedom. That great wealth was almost completely wasted within a few decades by careless slaughter for fun and sport, and excessively exploitative hunting of bison for hides and tongues.
By 1889, less than 1,000 were left and those were saved by the combined efforts of William Hornaday (Director of the Bronx Zoo) and a small group of ranchers. In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed to save the bison and protect rangeland for the animals. Today, those efforts are carried on by the National Bison Association and the Canadian Bison Association. The bison herds of today number in excess of 500,000 and are growing.
Most text excerpted from Bison Breeder's Handbook, 4th edition 2001, copyright 2001 National Bison Association.