Theodore Roosevelt - 1890s ...its toughness and hardy endurance fitted it to contend with purely natural forces...to resist cold and wintery blasts or the heat of the thirsty summer, to wander away to new pastures, to plunge over the broken ground, and to plow its way through snow drifts or quagmires. Theodore Roosevelt The buffalo, Bison bison , is the largest mammal on the North American continent. This magnificent creature, which is a member of the Bovidae, or cow family, was given a common name by the early French explorers who called them les boeufs, meaning oxen. Throughout the years, the name went through several changes from buffle to buffelo and finally to its present buffalo. Bison is the correct scientific and common name, but buffalo has been used and accepted for many years. American Indians have also referred to these powerful animals as tatanka. The ancestors of the American bison have been traced by their fossilized bones and are thought to have originated in southern Asia during the Pliocene epoch, some 400,000 years ago. The ancient bison was much larger than the present-day animal and ranged throughout the northern hemisphere. Paleontologists have learned that during its long history, the bison went through many changes. At one point in its evolution, a prehistoric bison, Bison latifrons , had horns measuring nine feet from tip to tip.
A more modern bison, Bison occidentalis , evolved in the late Pleistocene and was the immediate ancestor of our present-day bison. Bison initially made their way to America by crossing the ancient land bridge that once connected Asia with the North American continent. During the ensuing centuries, the bison moved south and east, at one time ranging from Mexico to southern New England. The greatest concentration of these animals, however, was found in the prairies and plains where the peak number of bison has been estimated at between 40 and 60 million. The bison has often been described as the most ferocious animal in North America. This description is no doubt a result of its great size. Full-grown bulls weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand six feet or more at the shoulder. Their massive heads, which are matted with a thick covering of wiry hair, hold a set of horns that are never shed. The shoulders carry a huge hump that gives the bison its characteristic top-heavy look, the hips being much smaller in relation to the rest of the body. A bison cow is similar in appearance to the bull, but is smaller in size, weighing up to 1100 pounds and reaching a height of four to five-and-a-half feet at the shoulder. Cows usually conceive for the first time as three-year olds.
Though calves can be born at any time of the year, the calving season usually begins in mid-April after a nine- to nine-and-one-half-month gestation period. Calves are able to walk minutes after they are born and remain with their mothers for about a year, or until another calf is born. Bison are herbivores or plant eaters, and feed primarily on wheat grass, buffalo grass, blue grama, and other similar grasses. Though they generally have poor eyesight, bison have excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell. Bison reach maturity at seven or eight years of age and may live to the ripe old age of thirty. For centuries, both bison and human coexisted on the Great Plains. The bison was the mainstay of Plains Indian life, providing food, clothing and shelter; little of the animal was wasted. Along with the Indian, natural predators--the wolf, mountain lion and grizzly bear--stalked the bison herds. Disease, accidental drowning and prairie fire took their toll. But these pressures had the positive effect of thinning the great herds, keeping them healthy and strong. It remained for the arrival of European settlers and their guns to seriously threaten the bison's existence. The start of the westward expansion movement in the 1830s marked the beginning of the end for the great bison herds. Between 1830 and 1880, large-scale bison hunts were organized and hundreds of thousands of bison were killed for their hides. Thousands were killed just for their tongues, which were considered a delicacy. As many as 250 bison were shot in one day by one hunter, and a good skinner could remove the hide in five minutes. The years between 1870 and 1880 saw the height of the bison trade when as many as 250,000 hides were auctioned off in one or two days. By the turn of the twentieth century, less than 300 wild bison remained.
If it were not for the foresight of a few individuals such as Theodore Roosevelt, the mighty bison could easily have become extinct. Warnings and attempts to protect the bison came as early as 1776, but it wasn't until 1894 that the first federal legislation protecting this animal was enacted. Killing of bison was now punishable by a $1000.00 fine or imprisonment, and the law was strictly enforced. Prior to this legislation, a small herd did exist in Yellowstone National Park, but was not protected against poachers. There were also several small herds owned by private individuals. With the passing of the bison protection law, game preserves were established that have ensured the survival of the bison. Today, more than 125,000 bison roam the North American continent. In 1956, 29 bison were obtained from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska and released in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Here they roamed freely on 46,000 acres of park land.
By 1962, the herd had increased to 145 individuals. Twenty of these animals (10 bulls and 10 cows) were shipped to the smaller 24,000-acre North Unit. Though both units of the park can easily carry larger numbers of bison, park managers have currently set herd size at approximately 200 - 400 animals for the South Unit and 100 - 300 for the North Unit to maintain the range in a healthy condition. Warning: Bison are wild animals and are dangerous if provoked. They an run up to 35 miles per hour and turn faster than a horse. Please, view them at a distance.