Millions of bison once roamed the Great Plains from what is now Canada south through the United States and into Mexico. Native Americans relied heavily on bison for food and utilized virtually every part of the animal from bones to hair. By the late 1880’s, however, bison were driven almost to extinction due to the pioneer settlement of western North America. Waves of trappers and traders killed millions of bison for their hides and meat, highly desired in the east. Bison were also killed for sport, their carcasses left on the prairie. Later the bones were gathered and shipped east to be ground up for use as phosphorous fertilizer or bone char. White settlers clashed with the Native American residents over land, and the U.S. government promoted the slaughter of bison as a way to devastate the Native American’s way of life. In Kansas by 1870, bison roamed only the western half of the state, and within the next 10 years bison herds were virtually gone. The last bison in Kansas was killed in 1886. Today through management, bison have made a comeback and approximately 200,000 exist in national parks, preserves, tribal lands, zoos and private herds.
The largest native mammal on the North American continent, Bos bison is named for its cousin from north central Europe. The name comes from the Germanic word, wissant or wisent. The ancestors of the European bison once roamed most of Europe and the steppes of Asia but in recent times the wisent is found only in certain parts of Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and a few other areas. They prefer wooded or mixed-forest habitats where they browse on forbs, leaves and shoots of woody plants, lichen and grasses. Much of their behavior is similar to the North American bison but they are somewhat smaller in size. The European bison is considered endangered.
The American bison is a shaggy-maned mammal with a large head, heavy forequarters and a large, muscular hump. The great herds once grazing the grasslands of North America were first seen by Cabeza de Vaca and members of the Spanish expeditions in the 1530’s. Journal notes of one of Coronado’s captains stated that they had to wait four days for a herd of wild “cattle” to cross a river in the Texas/New Mexico region. Several horses were lost during the encounter. The bison were hunted with spear and rifle by the Spanish, who likened the meat to the best cattle of Castile in Spain. Europeans later called them “buffalo” after the Asian and African wild oxen known to them. Some say the word originates from the Latin, bos (a head of cattle) from which came the French, boeff , from which came the English, beef.
Bison are gregarious animals moving constantly in herds, searching for new grazing areas of their favorite food, grasses. Buffalo Grass and Blue Grama are their preferential forages, found most abundantly in the drier mixed and shortgrass prairies of the Great Plains. Other grasses, like Big and Little Bluestem, Indian grass, Switch grass, Side Oats Grama and other grama grasses are eaten as well. The nutritional value of the grama grasses is high, even in the winter.
Like other related ruminants, bison have a four-chambered stomach, specialized for digesting high cellulose plant material with the help of fermentation by protozoa and bacteria. The teeth have evolved for grinding. Bison spend much of their time resting and ruminating, regurgitating and chewing their cud before moving the material on to the last two chambers of the stomach.