40 things you might not know about the American Bison, our new national mammal

I was first introduced to the mighty American Bison somewhere around second grade in my elementary school classroom as groups of us kids gathered around the couple (very old-fashioned) Macintosh computers in our classroom in order to play our favorite floppy disk game “The Oregon Trail”.

Hunting was everyone’s favorite part of this game, and the bison was the prize you always aspired to as it was the biggest and easiest target, yielding your trail party the most food. During the middle of the game, those 200 lbs. the hunting party was able to take to the wagon could be critical in continuing game play.

I learned only a few things about the great American Bison during those game sessions: that the bison always weighed over 2000 lbs. and that these big lumbering beasts made easy targets for hungry hunters. (Turns out both of those aren’t really true… but we’ll get to that!)

But, you may have heard the news recently that Congress decided to name the Bison our National Mammal, honoring it with a status similar to the Bald Eagle.

So, I thought I would take some time to put together a post to properly introduce you to this awesome animal! Below, find 50 facts about the American Bison. I’ll bet you find some you didn’t already know!

1. Buffalo? Bison? What are we talking about?

There’s sometimes a little confusion between “bison” and “buffalo”. Here’s the deal, the American Bison is the proper name for the animal that, here in the U.S.A., we sometimes refer to as “buffalo”. The word “buffalo” is ingrained into our culture so much so that both are acceptable ways to refer to the bison. It’s not like we’re going to re-name him “Bison Bill”.

On the left is a photo of a Water Buffalo (source: Wikipedia). On the right is a photo of an American Bison Bull (source: NebraskaBison.com)

But technically, American Bison are not buffalo. Buffalo are a species of animal not even indigenous to North America. Instead, they are found in Africa, Europe and Asia: for instance, the Water Buffalo and Asia. These are a completely separate species from Bison and in a side by side comparison, look quite different as well.

2. You can find bison in all 50 states – even Hawaii.

Bison are represented throughout the United States on private ranches and public farms. But a lot of people don’t realize that there are actually farms throughout the entire country, not just in the West.

3. But South Dakota has the most.

As you may imagine, the plains are where most of the bison currently live. You’ll find large populations of bison in states like Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Montana, however, South Dakota currently boasts the most bison of any other state.

4. The National Bison Association estimates there are an estimated 500,000 bison in North America.

Canada is home to large populations of bison and the estimated numbers based on census data and National Bison Association numbers is 500,000.

5. But there used to be literally millions.

Before Westward Expansion, tens of millions of bison roamed the Great Plains. The bison were killed to near extinction, however, mainly as an attempt to weaken the Native American tribes that relied on the bison for so much of their daily lives.

6. Conservation efforts led by Teddy Roosevelt prevented the extinction of the American Bison.

By 1889 only 1,000 bison remained. Luckily, there were some Americans who made an effort to save this species. William T. Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt founding the American Bison Society in 1905 to help save bison from extinction and raise public awareness about the animal.

7. According to the 2012 USDA Census information, there were 2,564 Bison Farms in the United States.

This is of course a far cry from millions free-roaming the plains (which let’s face it, isn’t really feasible with the society we’ve established.) However, bison herds are thriving and growing. Many private bison farms are in fact large open ranges where the fences don’t much bother the bison anyway. They have plenty of room for roaming and grazing and the farmers who raise them care about the quality of life for their herds.

8. Bison live on public and private lands.

Yellowstone National Park has the largest free roaming bison population and is reportedly the only place where bison have continuously lived since pre-historic times. The Yellowstone herd numbers at about 3,500-head.

9. Bison Bulls can weigh 2000 lbs.

Full grown bison males can literally weigh a ton.

10. This makes it the largest land animal in North America.

The bison is the largest (by weight), followed by Moose which can weigh 1600 lbs.

11. But the heifers are quite smaller.

The female bison weigh in around 1000 lbs. or a little more. Although they don’t tip the scales quite as much as their mates, the female bison is no small animal, herself.

12. Bison calves weigh 40-50 lbs. at birth.

So, you can imagine that the bison calves aren’t so small either. They are born weighing around 40-50 lbs. and grow very rapidly from there.

13. Bison are made up largely of muscle, not fat.

One distinctive feature of bison is their large hump. This hump, and much of the rest of it’s body is made up largely of muscle. Take a look at the incredibly large head of the bison. They need all this muscle to hold that head up.

14. Like cattle, males are bulls, females are heifers and babies are calves.

Bison are bovines, so the terminology is the same as with cattle: bulls, cows / heifers and calves.

15. You don’t want to get too close… bison can run 35-40 mph.

All their muscle means even though bison look like large, lazy animals, they are actually incredibly strong, fast and agile. Bison can run as fast as a galloping horse which is what can make a bison stampede so impressive.

16. Even the babies are pretty tough.

Just check out this video the National Geographic captured of a bison calf who was confronted by a predator:

17. There are two types of American Bison: Woods & Plains

There are two types of the American Bison, which have several differences in appearance. The Woods Bison (more often to be found in Canada) are heavier and taller with a more distinctive hump. Additionally, you can notice differences in their hair and coats.

18. Baby bison are cinnamon colored for the first couple months.

Here’s a picture of a young bison calf.

Most bison are not born dark brown (although occasionally you will get a dark calf). Most bison are born a reddish, cinnamon color which lasts for the first couple months of their lives. After two months, the coat begins turning brown.

19. Heifers can have their first calves when they are 3 years.

Bison are weaned after about 6 months. Female bison begin breeding at 2 years and have their first calves at 3. (Gestation period for bison is about 9 1/2 months).

20. Bison calves are born in the spring, from April – June.

Spring is a wonderful time on any bison ranch as this is when the babies come! Because bison are still wild animals, even on private ranches, the calving process is all completely independent of human interference. The mother bison will generally leave the herd when she is ready to give birth and will return when the calf is able to join her.

21. They are up and walking with their mothers within hours of being born.

Since bison are instinctively roaming animals, it doesn’t take long for the babies to be up and walking with their mothers. Generally, they are up and walking within hours. Here’s a video from our ranch of a baby bison less than one day old:

22. Twins are very rare, but do occur.

This is Buster, an orphan twin, who was bottle fed and is now thriving.

In most cases, a bison will give birth to only one calf. However, in rare cases twins do occur. Unfortunately, because it is rare, the mother bison generally doesn’t realize both babies are hers and one of the twins is left to fend for itself, usually resulting in its demise. However, when discovered early, and under the right circumstances, ranchers have been able to save these calves and bottle feed them. Here’s a story about one such case.

23. Bison can live to be 20-25 years old.

Both in the wild and on private ranches, bison have been known to live into their twenties.

24. Bison are natural grazers.

Bison are instinctually always moving, never staying in one place for long.

25. Both male and female bison have horns.

Although their are other ways to distinguish between male and female bison (size, humps, heads), horns is not one of those ways. Both bulls and heifers have horns.

26. Bison grow a winter coat each year which they naturally shed for summer.

Don’t worry! She’s just shedding her winter coat for the summer!

Bison are made to survive in harsh conditions: both cold, snowy winters and hot summers. So, each winter bison grow a thick coat to help keep them warm. In the spring and summer months, this coat is shed. So, if you ever see a bison that seems to be losing all its hair, check the calendar. It’s probably just taking off its winter coat!

27. This winter coat is so thick and well insulated, snow can cover it without melting.

And this coat is quite impressive. It’s been noted that it is so well insulated, snow which falls on the bison does not melt from body heat. Likely, this snow doesn’t even bother the bison.

28. According to a study in Wisconsin, Bison are helping an endangered butterfly species survive.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources “revealed a link between habitat disturbances caused by American Bison and improved habitat” for the Karner Blue Butterflies during conservation efforts of this federally endangered species.

The bison’s natural behavior of wallowing and rubbing their horns agains shrubs and trees apparently helps make excellent conditions for the butterfly.

29. There is a National Bison Association, a non-profit organization with over 1000 members.

With over 1000 members, the National Bison Association exists to promote preservation, production and marketing of bison. Many bison ranchers in the USA are members and the association hosts two annual conferences full of education and networking..

30. US Bison meat sales topped $340 million in 2015.

Bison meat sales have grown by 22% in the last five years, appealing to consumers looking for naturally raised, ethically raised and/or lean protein options.

31. That’s less than 1% of the sale of cattle, hogs and poultry produced in 2015.

Although bison meat sales are growing, the industry is still a small fraction of total meat sales in the USA. Bison remains a novelty item with demand often outstripping supply.

32. But, Bison meat is growing wildly in popularity, showing up at farmers markets, specialty grocery stores and online.

The growth of the bison industry has been helped by the increasing availability of the meat. Specialty retailers such as Whole Foods, local farmers markets and other retailers dedicated to locally, sustainably raised products are keen to offer bison meat products. But, even if you can’t find bison meat in your area, you can even get bison meat shipped straight to your door with online retailers.

33. Bison meat provides all the same cuts you can get from beef.

If you are new to bison meat, the good news is that it comes in all the same cuts you are already familiar with in beef. Bison is incredibly versatile. While the traditional cuts are considered premium cuts of meat, bison meat also works great in value-added / prepared products, as producers are creating such options as Bison Hot Dogs, Summer Sausages, Jerky, Protein Bars and more.

34. Bison is incredibly lean compared to other red meats.

One of the biggest selling points to fans of bison meat is the fact that it is so lean, while remaining tender and flavorful. (Remember how we talked about how muscular bison are? This is how they can be incredibly tender AND much leaner than beef).

35. A 4 oz. Serving of 90% lean Ground Bison has only 11g of fat.

That’s a mere 17% of your recommended Daily Value. In addition, it has only 200 calories, 65mg of sodium, but 22g Protein. Compare that to the ground beef in your freezer.

36. A full 10 oz. Bison Top Sirloin has only 7g of fat.

Additionally, the 10 oz. steak has 140mg sodium, 320 calories, 61g protein

37. Bison can be cooked like any other meat and works in your favorite recipes – just go low and slow.

It’s recommended that bison be cooked low and slow, due to its leanness. If you’ve ever had bison that was dry or tough one of two things probably happened: it was cooked too fast or it was cooked to long. Bison is recommended to cook to medium doneness or less for optimum taste.

38. The new designation of National Mammal is purely symbolic and does not move it into the protected class of the Bald Eagle.

The legislation is meant to honor the American Bison and its role in our history. However, it does not grant the same protections afforded to the endangered Bald Eagle. Bison can still be raised privately, hunted and raised for meat.

39. It is illegal to use growth hormones in bison.

Bison producers raise bison without the use of growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics.

40. Bison has been listed as a recommended lean meat by the American Heart Association.

Due to the lean nutrition facts of bison meat, organizations such as the American Heart Association list it in their recommendations.