Bison Facts

Livestock owners who take the time to learn basic bison facts have discovered that these animals are often hardier and more productive than "modern" breeds.

| May/June 1981

"A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell ... a deathwind for my people," said Chief Sitting Bull. And, indeed, the buffalo's near extinction ranks as one of American history's most shameful tales.

Bison facts: There was a time when the powerful beasts ranged from Virginia to California, from Canada to Florida, and down into Mexico. Indeed, it's been (conservatively) estimated that when Europeans first arrived on these shores there were over 60 million bison in existence, amounting to probably the greatest aggregation of large animals ever known to civilized Homo sapiens. Even as recently as the last century a herd could contain a million individuals, so that "the country was one robe" and "the plains were black and appeared as if in motion."

However, as men and women from the eastern cities moved westward, the situation changed dramatically. The worst of such people wantonly butchered the marvelous creatures, taking just the hides—or sometimes only tongues—and leaving the carcasses to rot until the bone harvesters could collect their share. Few people realize that this senseless slaughter caused much of the hostility that the Plains Indians—many of whom relied upon the bison for food, shelter, and more—came to feel toward the settlers!

By 1890, only a few small herds remained. More recently, however, as a result of the efforts of conservationists and ranchers who recognized the animals' value, buffaloes once again began to dot the American countryside. Today, there are an estimated 30,000 head—divided among about 400 herds—in the U.S. and Canada. (Although a couple of the groups number over 1,000, most are much smaller.) What's more, bison are, when properly raised, proving to be both enjoyable and highly profitable livestock animals!

A Hardy Breed

The buffalo has one distinct advantage over most domestic cattle: its incredible hardiness. With a rough hide and thick covering of wool-like hair, a bison (even when very young) can easily tolerate the harsh, frigid winters of the upper prairie states and can weather blizzards that would likely kill entire herds of beef animals.

Thriving on grasses alone, the native livestock can range and forage far and wide, and even root out food from beneath deep snow. In fact, some commercial buffalo herds are simply left to forage year ground, although most are fed a little hay during the cold months. (Our Kansas Fish and Game Department's herd is given 1 1/2 pounds of 18% protein pellets, per animal, throughout the winter, as well as and supplemental hay when there's a ground cover of snow.)

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