American Bison

Banner Bison C Jay Paul

Natural History

Early settlers in the United States first designated the term “buffalo” to bison (Bison bison), but they are not buffaloes at all! The terms buffalo and bison are now used interchangeably due to the early adoption of the term among Native Americans and settlers. When most people think of bison, images of the Wild West usually come to mind. What many people don’t realize is that only a few hundred years ago, bison roamed most of America, including Virginia! In fact, Virginia is thought to have had more bison than any other Atlantic state in the early 1700s. It has been estimated that over 60 million bison roamed North America when Columbus landed in 1492.

The numbers of bison began to seriously decline in the 1800s. Over-hunting was one reason for this decline, as bison were easy to hunt and had many uses. These included using their skin for clothing and shelter, tools from bone and horns, meat, and droppings for fuel.  In the early 1900s, the bison population had dwindled to around 1,000 animals. Since then, bison have become protected, and about 500,000 bison are found in North America, most on farms and ranches. Only about 5,000 roam in the wild, primarily in Yellowstone National Park.

Bison are the largest land animal found in North America and adults can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. In order to maintain this weight, they must consume 30 to 40 pounds of food each day. Both males and females have shoulder humps, beards, and thick horns that can be used for defense. Bison grow a thick, shaggy layer of fur in the fall to help protect them from freezing winter temperatures. In the springtime, as the weather warms up, they shed their winter coat in clumpy patches.

Bison bison



Grasses, plant material

800 to 2,000 lbs, 4-6 ft tall

Herds are scattered throughout the Northwestern U.S. and the Northwest Territory of Canada

Fun Facts

  • Despite their size, bison can run up to 35 mph.
  • The oldest living captive bison was 33 years old. Typically, bison live up to 20 years old.
  • Calves can walk and run within a few hours of being born.
  • Bison use their olfactory system, or sense of smell, to detect predators and danger.
  • Bison communicate with each other vocally through grunts and snorts.
  • Early American settlers used the term “buffalo” to describe the American bison, but they’re actually not buffaloes at all. True buffaloes are found in Africa and Asia.
  • In the early 1700s, Virginia had more American bison than any other Atlantic state, however, there are currently no native bison herds in Virginia.
  • Overhunting led to the decline of the American bison. An estimated 60 million bison roamed America when Columbus landed here in 1492, and about 1,000 bison were left in the early 1900s.
  • Thanks to conservation efforts, about 30,000 wild bison roam North America today, about 2,000-5,000 of which are found in Yellowstone National Park.

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