Oh, give me a home – where the Buffalo roam!

by Dave Hanks

BISON lost their home, but, thankfully, they have been brought back from the edge of extinction. This has been done, not only in National and Provincial Parks, but by a few private individuals that hated to see them disappear.

Lands where original Bison herds were common, have since felt the plow. But, domestic crops couldn’t thrive under the harsh conditions that the natural grasses could. Nor could domestic cattle fare as well on those same ranges. The resulting effect has left many areas of the northern plains in desolate condition. Some of those areas are now undergoing rehabilitation in an attempt to return them to their original state.

Some ranchers believe that Bison have some distinct advantages over cattle. I know, from personal experience, that feed costs are what can sink a cattle operation. Bison can skirt this issue, because they can survive winter on the available grass. Cattle require extra winter feed – which can run up operating costs drastically. Bison do need more space, better fences, and you must avoid the temptation to over-stock your ranch. Bison move around better than cattle, utilizing the food source more evenly. Also, Bison can be bred with cattle to produce hybrids known as Beefalos.

One of the most devoted individuals to Bison recovery is Ted Turner. He has used some of his wealth to finance his new found passion. He owns 55,000 head on his 15 ranches. His huge, original ranch is south of Bozeman, Montana.

Restaurants that feature Bison meat realize that people can acquire a taste for Buffalo burgers. Some folks like them better than regular burgers. The meat is leaner and has a lesser cholesterol content.

At home in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Bison: Remnants from Massive Herds of Yesteryear

The American Bison is not a buffalo. True buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. Bison, like cattle, are bovines. Incidentally cow (or bull) is not a species – they are genders. Bison can breed with our domestic cattle to produce a hybrid. Also, like cattle, they have four stomachs and chew their cud. Bison are the largest North American land animal and parallel our cattle in weight – bulls up to a ton and cows up to eleven hundred pounds.

Bison live on the prairie and on open, mountainous grasslands. They are most active in the early morning or evening (crepuscular), and even on moonlit nights. Mid-day usually finds them resting and cud chewing. This herd-type ungulate (hooves) has deceptive speed. A seemingly slow moving group always surprises me. They can be here and then gone in an amazing short period of time. Adults are a dark brown, but calves are a very attractive light, reddish-brown. At two to three months of age, the young switch to the darker adult color.

Depressions full of dust or mud are used as wallows. The wallowing helps shed hair and fight parasites. Bulls will do more wallowing at rutting time. Shaggy heads and shoulders are adapted to use as snow plows to reach winter feed or to face into blizzards. When faced with predators, calves and cows will move to the center of the herd – or when stampeding, in front with bulls at the rear for protection.

We have experienced Bison in Custer Park of South Dakota, Teddy Roosevelt Park of North Dakota, Canada’s Northwest Territories, and of course Yellowstone National Park. But, we find the National Bison Range, north of Missoula, Montana, to be the most interesting. The range borders the Flathead River. An Indian, by the name of Walking Coyote, hid four calves by the river during the age of the great Bison slaughter – thus the nucleus of this herd. The Bison in this park are managed to keep their range from being overgrazed. Each calf is branded a number according to its year of birth. In October, cowboys from surrounding communities drive the Bison into corrals where they are sorted, calves vaccinated, and an auction is held to dispose of the surplus.

American Bison

A massive front end – a formidable presentation to natural challenges