An enduring symbol of freedom and the West, bison once roamed the U.S. grasslands.
While the landscape of the USA has changed in modern times, the love for this majestic mammal has remained a constant. The National Bison Legacy Act was signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama in May 2016, making bison the USA's national mammal. Thanks to the work of conservationists, the National Park Service and private land owners, bison herds are growing nationwide, increasing from just 1,000 in 1890 to more than 500,000 today.
What Are Bison?
Bison are the continent's largest mammal, and can grow to 2 meters tall and weigh up to 907 kilograms.
Bison or Buffalo?
Bison is the scientific term for this mammal, but many people also call them buffalo. Which is correct? Technically, the word "buffalo" just refers to African and Asian buffalo, whereas the North American bison is related only to the European bison. But the name buffalo has been used for so long that you'll see it as a common alternative.
Bison is the scientific term for this mammal, but they're also called buffalo.
To people in the USA, bison have long been an emblem representing the country's frontier roots, gracing the U.S. Department of the Interior seal, the National Park Service Arrowhead logo, and at one time, the back of the USA's five-cent coin, the nickel. The unofficial anthem of the West, "Home On the Range," begins with the line, "Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam." Plus, many U.S. cities and sports teams also reference buffalo or bison in their names.
Bison have long been an emblem representing the USA's frontier roots.
Where You Can See Bison
Bison are now found in nearly every U.S. state, but the best place to see wild herds is Yellowstone National Park. Most bison have been crossbred with cattle over time, but Yellowstone's remain purebred.
Yellowstone is the only place bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times, and their herd numbers nearly 5,000 – making it the largest group of free-range bison.
You'll also find bison at protected locations throughout the USA: Antelope Island State Park in the Great Salt Lake near Salt Lake City, Utah; National Bison Range in Moiese, Montana; Catalina Island near Los Angeles, California; Land Between the Lakes Elk and Bison Prairie in Golden Pond, Kentucky; Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota; and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California.
Bison are now found in nearly every U.S. state, but the best place to see wild herds is Yellowstone National Park.
Look But Don't Touch
While these massive mammals appear calm and slow to visitors, they're among the most dangerous wildlife to encounter. The National Park Service says bison can sprint three times faster than humans, and they're known to charge, throw or gore humans when threatened. National park visitors are required to stay 23 meters away from bison, as their behavior can be unpredictable; you should never approach or touch one.
National park visitors are required to stay 23 meters away from bison, as their behavior can be unpredictable; you should never approach or touch one.
Bison and Native Americans
Long before the first settlers arrived in what is now the USA, Native Americans hunted bison. Fundamental to tribal culture and survival, they used every part of the bison for food, clothing, shelter and tools.
Today, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is leading the effort to return wild bison to tribal lands. Through partnerships with tribal leaders, the NWF is working to restore the cultural connection with bison for Native American tribes and creating space for free-roaming herds to graze in their historic habitats.
No matter where you roam in the USA, be sure to see this living fixture of the Wild West along the way.