Bison are large mammals with even toes. These hoofed mammals belong to the Bovidae family. In North America, there are two subspecies of bison: plains bison and wood bison.
Historically, plains bison lived in central North America’s Great Plains, primarily. In contrast, wood bison lived farther away in the north and were found from Alaska into the Yukon and Northwest Territories, as well as in northern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
Before the arrival of Europeans, plains bison were estimated to number 30 million and wood bison 170,000. Various aspects of European colonization contributed to the rapid depopulation of bison in North America.
Plains bison were extinct in Canada by the late 1800s, and wood bison numbered around 200. Because of conservation efforts in both Canada and the United States, the plains bison population in North America now ranges between 350,000 and 400,000, and the wood bison population ranges between 5,000 and 7,000.
Buffalo vs. Bison
The term “bison” is derived from the Latin language, which means wild ox. It is believed to have originated in the Baltic region, where it means “stinking animal,” referring to the odor of bulls during the breeding season.
A lot of people are not sure whether to call this animal a “bison” or a “buffalo.” Technically, no true buffalo are native to North America. There are two types of buffalo: the African cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and the Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis).
There are several theories as to how the term “buffalo” came to be used. It is thought that when Europeans first arrived in North America, they saw a species that resembled the buffalo of Africa and Asia and mistook the bison for a buffalo. Others believe the name is derived from the French word buf, which also means ox or bullock.
Regardless of its technical meaning, people have used the term buffalo to refer to North American bison for hundreds of years, and as a result, the name has a long cultural and romantic tradition associated with it. Buffalo is still the name of choice for many Indigenous peoples. In general, buffalo is used in cultural contexts, whereas bison is used in scientific contexts.
Primary Bison Types
Wood Bison vs. Plains Bison
The plains and wood bison are subspecies of the genus Bison. The long bony spines create their hump profile on their vertebrae. Both subspecies carry most of their weight on their front legs, making it difficult to dig through the snow with their front feet when foraging in the winter. The hump supports a structural system designed to support a massive head while cratering through deep snow for months. They use their brows to push the snow aside so they can eat the grass.
Plains bison are the tiniest bison species that have ever existed. Bison males, like all large mammals, are larger in size than female bison. An adult male weighs 739 kg on average, while females weigh 440 kg.
Wood bison are the largest of all living bison, with adult bulls weighing an average of 880 kg and females weighing an average of 540 kg.
Millions of bison once roamed across North America. Approximately 500,000 bison live in North America today. Bison are large, even-toed ungulates belonging to the subfamily Bovinae.
There are currently only two species of bison; however, four species are extinct. The American bison, B. bison, is found only in North America and is often referred to as a “buffalo,” and B. bonasus, or Wisent, is found in Europe and the Caucasus.
The following are some of the most common bison breeds.
1. Beefalo Bisons
Beefalo, also known as cattalo, are the fertile offspring of domestic cattle and American bison. They were developed to combine the characteristics of both animals to produce beef.
Beefalo are primarily cattle in genetics and appearance, with the breed association who define a Beefalo as one having three-eighths of bison genetics. In contrast, animals with higher percentages of bison genetics are called “bison hybrids.”
2. Plains Bisons
At one time, there were at least 25 million American bison roaming Canada and the United States. By the late 1880s, however, the total number of bison in the United States had been reduced to less than 600 individuals. The majority of these were taken to various private ranches, and the last known free-roaming bison population was less than 30 in the area that later became Yellowstone National Park.
Plains bison have since been reintroduced in a number of North American locations. Five major herds of American bison supplied animals destined to save them from extinction. The Alaska Game Commission introduced bison to the area around present-day Delta Junction in 1928, making it the northernmost introduction.
This transplanted bison was also introduced to other Alaska communities, including Farewell and Chitina. Throughout the late twentieth century, the Delta Junction herd thrived the most, with a population of several hundred.
This herd is popular with hunters looking for hundreds of pounds of high-quality meat, but it has caused problems for local farming operations. Though American bison prefer grasslands and plains habitats, they are highly adaptable and can live in environments ranging from desert to forested.
Over 500,000 bison are currently spread across the United States and Canada. However, the majority of these are on private ranches, and some contain trace amounts of hybridized cattle genes.
Plains bison from the Elk Island National Park of Alberta were released into the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan in 2006. This is the first time Plains bison have roamed Canada’s short grass prairies since their near-extinction at the turn of the twentieth century.
According to Parks Canada, the entire breeding population of these wild and semi-wild bison is descended from just eight individuals who survived the near-extinction period.
In Texas, one herd of Plains bison was established. In 1876, a remnant of the last of this herd was saved. Molly Goodnight persuaded her husband, Charles Goodnight, a rancher, to save some of the last bison in the Texas Panhandle. She was able to establish a buffalo herd near the Palo Duro Canyon by saving these few Plains bison.
3. Wisent Bisons
Wisent, also known as European bison, is a species of bison native to Europe. It is one of two extant bison species, the other being the American bison. It was commonly killed in the past, particularly during the Middle Ages, for its hide and to make drinking horns.
There were three subspecies in the recent past, but only one survives today. The Bialowieza, or lowland European bison, was bred in captivity and has since been reintroduced into several European countries. They now live in the woods.
The European bison was designated an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1996. Its classification has since been changed to vulnerable.
4. Wood Bisons
Wood Bison is commonly referred to as the mountain bison. These are the largest of all terrestrial animals in North America. The range originally included much of Yukon, Alaska, the western Northwest Territories, northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and northwestern Saskatchewan’s boreal forest regions.
Wood bison weighs more than Plains bison. They have larger horn cores, woollier and darker pelages, and less hair on their beards and forelegs.
In addition to habitat loss and hunting, wood bison populations are in danger of hybridizing with plains bison, contaminating the genetic stock.
By the early 1900s, the wood bison population had been decimated, and they were thought to be extremely rare, if not extinct. In 1957, however, a herd of about 200 was discovered in Alberta, Canada. This herd has since recovered to a total population of about 2500, thanks largely to conservation efforts by Canadian government agencies.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada altered the conservation status of the species from being endangered to threatened in 1988, and it is still listed as such today.
There are currently about 7000 wood bison in the wild, which can be found in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba.
An out herd was established in Yakutia, Russia, in 2006. It came under the umbrella of an international conservation project. Additional bison were sent from Alberta to Russia in 2011 and 2013, bringing the total to 120.
5. Zubron Bisons
Zubron is a cross between Wisent and domestic cattle. The European bison is the wisest; thus, the zubron is considered analogous to the American Beefalo. There were numerous proposals that were submitted to the Przekroj, a Polish weekly magazine, during a contest held in 1969, and Zubron was officially chosen as the name from among them.
Zubron were first developed by Leopold Walicki in 1847, though the hybrid may have existed earlier. Several scientists considered Zubron as a possible replacement for domestic cattle after World War I. Zubron proved to be more durable and resistant to disease.
Furthermore, they could be bred in large state agricultural farms on marginal grazing land with no farm infrastructure and minimal husbandry (SAFs). The Polish Academy of Sciences continued research on zubron herds in various laboratories, primarily in Bialowieza and Mlodzikowo, until 1958.
71 animals were born during the first 16 years of research, including Filon, the first zubron born to a zubron mother (August 6, 1960). The animal was designed to be a tough and inexpensive alternative to cattle.
The experiment was carried out until the late 1980s, when the breeding programs’ results were deemed unsatisfactory. The severe economic difficulties of the Polish socialist economy in the 1980s, a lack of interest from the notoriously ineffective SAFs, and fears that zubron would crossbreed with the endangered wild Wisent, contaminating their gene pool all played a role in this decision.
Lekno (391 animals) and Popielno (121 animals) were two notable centers for species research, with limited experiments also taking place in the USSR’s Askania Nova reserve. This was discontinued, and the only surviving herd is made up of a few animals kept at Bialowieski National Park.