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.