The largest mammal that still survives in North America, the American bison today lives in wild and semi-wild herds on private ranges and on public lands. Bison have a dark brown, shaggy coat. The head and front portion of the animal are massive. Both sexes have short, upcurved horns. Juveniles are lighter in color.
Height: 6 feet; length: 10 feet; weight: 800–2,000 pounds.
Small herds of bison can be seen, for example, at Prairie State Park (Barton County) and at The Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch Prairie (Harrison County). Others live on private ranches.
Habitat and Conservation
Before European settlement, the American bison was a spectacular species of the open Great Plains, moving in vast herds north in the spring and south in the fall. Apparently, by the time immediately before European settlement, bison occurred sporadically in Missouri and were never abundant here. By 1840 only remnants of these magnificent animals were found in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state, and these soon disappeared. Overhunting by white settlers was the central reason for the bison’s extirpation. In addition, cattle competed for prairie grass, and plowing and fire suppression destroyed the bison’s prairie habitat.
Bison are ruminants; their digestive systems are like those of cattle. They are grazers of grasslands, eating grasses, sedges, and other plants. Because their herds can completely graze an area quickly, they migrate constantly to ungrazed areas.
Extirpated from Missouri, but reintroduced wild and semi-wild herds now live on public and private lands. Across their former territory, bison live on private ranches, national parks, and state and federal lands.
Bison herds each have a distinct social hierarchy, with both males and females competing for status. Males acquire harems of females and chase away rival males. Mating occurs in late summer, and one calf is born the following spring. Calves nurse for a year, becoming mature at age 3. At this time, males leave their mothers and live alone or join a bachelor herd. Upon breeding season, herds of males and females approach each other again.
Bison today are raised in captivity by some individuals, who market their meat.
For Native Americans, the bison provided food, shelter, clothing, and utensils, and on the treeless prairie the dried “buffalo chips” served as fuel.
White settlers overhunted bison for meat, hides, and sport, and to deprive Native Americans of their important source for sustenance, forcing them to abandon their traditional homelands.
Today, the remnants of the once-spectacular herds inspire us to take better care of the environment.
It’s hard to imagine the vast expanse of native grassland that once spread across America, or the bison that were its primary herbivore. Their thundering herds left an enduring mark on the landscape. In some places, their historic wallows are still visible.
The American bison once ranged through the Great Plains and tallgrass prairies in enormous herds. These animals could quickly and completely graze a given area, but because the presettlement grasslands covered so much territory, the bison could migrate constantly to ungrazed areas. Their occasional, random trampling and stripping of vegetation from lands was one of the natural disturbances, like fire, that maintained the prairie ecosystem, preventing trees from getting established.
In prehistoric times, bison were an important food for large predators such as saber-toothed cats.