Bison, or the American Buffalo, are probably the most iconic megafauna quadrupeds of the High Plains. That’s a mouth full to say, and buffalo are worth every word of it, as buffalo are presently the largest mammals on the North American continent.
When we talk about being, “buffaloed,” it usually means being dominated, stampeded or intimidated by a crowd, or by a foolish scheme. And, sometimes, it means being bluffed or fooled by something big. There’s little question that buffalo are capable of running you over, or making you think they can.
From about 10,000 BC until the mid-1800s, buffalo dominated and stampeded the High Plains where they were perfectly adapted to the wide expanses of tall grass prairie. Stories from Bernard DeVoto’s book “Across the Wide Missouri” (Houghton Mifflin, 1947) describe pioneers who heard a rumble in the earth a day in advance of approaching buffalo herds, herds so massive that, once they arrived, took an entire day to pass by.
Bison and buffalo are the same critter, “bison” being the scientific name, “buffalo” the common name, like “canine” is the scientific word, the common word, “dog.” Buffalo evolved from the European wisent, the old world buffalo that had a huge, hairy front quarters, and roamed around Europe some 3 million years ago. The wisent migrated north, apparently adapted to harsher climates. Wisent then migrated from northern China and Siberia to Alaska during the Pleistocene Ice Age and evolved a hump to balance a large head (a big head that wasn’t necessary endowed with a lot of brain matter) but the hump had the evolutionary advantage of preventing the beast from rolling over on its back and suffocating.
The wisent evolved in the milder climates of North America to Bison-Priscus and roamed the Plains for some 300,000 years before evolving into Bison-Latifrons, then to Bison-Antiquus, and finally, about 10,000 years ago into Bison-Bison, reaching a population of 30-70 million head on the Great Plains by the late 1700s.
There is some suggestion that buffalo were so well adapted to the High Plains that they over populated the region, even after considerable hunting by Native Americans, for whom the buffalo was so integral to their survival that buffalo rose to sacred stature among the various tribes.
Even more remarkable than the extraordinary population numbers reached by Bison-Bison by the early 1800s, is the relative speed with which those population numbers declined. By 1880, less than a hundred years after the buffalo population peaked, buffalo were nearly extinct on the North American continent.
The epic rise and fall of the iconic Bison-Bison will be the subject of a series of articles in coming weeks, articles dealing with (a) the Native American cultural bond to the buffalo, followed by (b) the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, (c) the shipment of literally hundreds of millions of tons of buffalo bones to the Midwest and East Coast for fertilizer, which depleted the Great Plains of essential phosphorus, and (d) concluding with the current controversy over bangs disease, and the issue of wild versus tame buffalo going into the future. ❖
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