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The American Bison
Nature Bulletin No. 323-A   November 30, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B, Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE AMERICAN BISON
In Montezuma's Zoo, Hernando Cortes marveled at a curious beast which he said was "a rare composite of several divers animals"; and when the first Spaniards reached the plains of Texas and Oklahoma they were awestruck by vast herds of those "crooked-backed- oxen". Pere Marquette, who spent the winter of 1674 on the shore of Mud Lake, now part of Chicago, wrote in his diary about the "wild cattle" that saved them from starvation. Father Hennepin and Tonty's nephew left detailed accounts of how the Indians killed such "cattle" along the Kankakee and DesPlaines rivers, and on the prairies of Illinois.

What these men saw was the American Bison which, like the beaver and the deer, was to greatly influence the history of the United States. Since the Ice Age, it has been the largest animal in America. The moose is taller but not so compact and ponderous. An old bull bison may be 10 feet long, stand 6 feet high at the shoulder, and weigh considerably more than a ton. It is not a buffalo. The true buffaloes of Africa and Asia, dangerous animals in the wild, do not have that broad hump over the shoulders, covered with a dense mat of shaggy hair, nor that long beard under the chin. Our bison is rather stupid, and in spite of its great strength and formidable appearance, conceals a peaceful retiring nature inside that massive curly head. There are many records of men passing unharmed through a grazing herd, and of migrating herds calmly dividing to pass around a team and wagon. However, although the bison's senses of smell and hearing are very acute, their eyesight is poor, and it meant almost certain death to be caught in the path of a frenzied thundering stampede.

Bison originally ranged over about one-third of North America, from Mexico to Great Slave Lake in northern Canada, and from the Columbia River to the Alleghenies. The eastern race was exterminated in New York and Pennsylvania by about 1800. The Woodland Bison of Canada is a little larger and darker, with more slender, longer horns. Frontiersmen told of herds numbering 100,000 that wore deep trails to the salt licks in Kentucky and elsewhere. The B & O Railroad follows an ancient buffalo trail through the mountains of West Virginia.

On the Great Plains, however, their movements were largely north and south. Roughly divided into a northern, a central, and a southern herd, they made mass migrations in autumn and spring. In May of 1971, in western Arkansas, Col. R. I. Dodge traveled 25 miles through the path of a herd that, moving slowly northward, required a day and a night to pass that point. Actually, such masses were a conglomeration of innumerable small herds of from 50 to 200, somewhat separated and each led by an old bull. The plains were not black with buffalo all the time. They were constantly on the move, feeding on the short but highly nutritious gramma grass and buffalo grass, so that no area was overgrazed.

According to the most generally accepted estimate, by Ernest Thompson Seton, there were at least 60 million bison in North America when the white man came. There were probably about one million Indians, including 100,000 on the Great Plains, but the red men killed only what they could use. The wolves and panthers killed many but these were usually very old, sick and crippled. The natural increase -- one calf per cow each year -- was largely offset by those that perished in blizzards, prairie fires, in the treacherous quicksands of those western rivers, and especially by the tremendous losses that occurred when they attempted to cross those rivers on rotten ice in spring.

What hoppen? You'll find out next week.


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