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Once, great herds of this wonderful animal roamed from northern Mexico to Alaska. Today, wild Bison herds are found in national parks and refuges in only six US states (Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota) and one Canadian province (Northwest Territory).
The 19th century saw hunting of Bison on a scale that nearly brought the species to extinction. Threats now include habitat loss, genetic manipulation and culling to prevent the spread of bovine disease.
Wild herds occupy less than 1% of their original range and the species is classed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (on the IUCN red list).
Meeting the Bison at Werribee Open Range Zoo is an important way to connect with this vulnerable species.
Bison means ‘ox-like’ in Greek. They belong to the bovidae family just like cattle, buffalo, antelope, gazelles, sheep and goats.
The American Bison, commonly known as the American Buffalo, is not to be confused with its African (Cape Buffalo) and Asian (Water Buffalo) cousins. A large shoulder hump and thick winter coat are two things that distinguish a Bison from a buffalo.
Bisons are the largest land mammals in North America. Male Bison, called bulls, stand 1.8m and weigh 700-900kg. Cows, female Bison, weigh only half as much but they are hefty beasts all the same.
American Bison live in grassland habitats such as plains, prairies and river valleys and are grazers, meaning they eat mainly grasses. Bison eat in the early morning and evening and chew their cud in between. In winter, Bison use their head and hooves to find food beneath the snow.
American Bison live, feed and move in herds which include cows and calves. Adult bulls are solitary animals and only join a herd during the mating season called the rut.
- Adult Bison have few natural predators. Their horns, strong hooves, large size and speed (they can run 60 km/hr) are effective weapons of self-defence against wolf packs and even bears
- The great herds of Bison were part of the largest community of wild animals that the world has ever known
- The American Bison, once numbering more than 60 million, were hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s. Bison hunters killed the American buffalo for their skins. Railroads allowed tourists to shoot Bison from their trains. The US government promoted the slaughter of the American symbol to strip Native Americans of their lifestyle
- The only continuously wild Bison herd in the US resides within Yellowstone National Park. Numbering between 3,000 and 3,500, this herd is descended from a remnant population of 23 individual mountain Bison that survived the mass slaughter of the 1800s by hiding out in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone Park
- Recent genetic studies of privately owned herds of Bison show that many of them include animals with genes from domestic cattle; there are as few as 12,000 to 15,000 pure Bison in the world