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15 Facts About Our National Mammal: The American Bison

On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, officially making the American bison the national mammal of the United States. This majestic animal joins the ranks of the Bald Eagle as the official symbol of our country — and much like the eagle, it’s one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.

In prehistoric times, millions of bison roamed North America — from the forests of Alaska and the grasslands of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains. But by the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today.

Explore more fun facts about the American bison:


1. Bison are the largest mammal in North America. Male bison (called bulls) weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, while females (called cows) weigh up to 1,000 pounds and reach a height of 4-5 feet. Bison calves weigh 30-70 pounds at birth

Several large bison standing in a line.

2. Since the late 19th century, Interior has been the primary national conservation steward of the bison. Public lands managed by Interior support 17 bison herds — or approximately 10,000 bison — in 12 states, including Alaska.

Two bison and a bison calf walking in a line.

3. What’s the difference between bison and buffalo? While bison and buffalo are used interchangeably, in North America the scientific name is bison. Actually, it’s Bison bison bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: bison), but only saying it once is fine. Historians believe that the term “buffalo” grew from the French word for beef, “boeuf.”

A large bison laying on the grass with three small birds standing on its back.

4.Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the U.S. where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times. What makes Yellowstone’s bison so special is that they’re the pure descendants (free of cattle genes) of early bison that roamed our country’s grasslands. As of July 2015, Yellowstone’s bison population was estimated at 4,900 — making it the largest bison population on public lands.

A bison walking by a steaming hot spring in bright sunlight.

5. What’s a “red dog”? It’s a baby bison. Bison calves tend to be born from late March through May and are orange-red in color, earning them the nickname “red dogs.” After a few months, their hair starts to change to dark brown and their characteristic shoulder hump and horns begin to grow.

A bison and calf nuzzle each other.

6. The history of bison and Native Americans are intertwined. Bison have been integral to tribal culture, providing them with food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter and spiritual value. Established in 1992, the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council works with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national park lands to tribal lands

A small herd of bison standing on a grassy hill with mountains behind them.

7. You can judge a bison’s mood by its tail. When it hangs down and switches naturally, the bison is usually calm. If the tail is standing straight up, watch out! It may be ready to charge. No matter what a bison’s tail is doing, remember that they are unpredictable and can charge at any moment. Every year, there are regrettable accidents caused by people getting too close to these massive animals. It’s great to love the bison, but love them from a distance.

A bison watching over a calf.

8. Wind Cave National Park’s herd helped revive bison populations around the country. The story starts in 1905 with the formation of the American Bison Society and a breeding program at the New York City Zoo (today, the Bronx Zoo). By 1913, the American Bison Society had enough bison to restore a free-ranging bison herd. Working with Interior, they donated 14 bison to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. More than 100 years later, the bison from Wind Cave have helped reestablishing other herds across the United States and most recently in Mexico.

A small herd of bison lounging in the dirt.

9. Bison may be big, but they’re also fast. They can run up to 35 miles per hour. Plus, they’re extremely agile. Bison can spin around quickly, jump high fences and are strong swimmers

A bison charging through a river.

10. Pass the salad, please. Bison primarily eat grasses, weeds and leafy plants — typically foraging for 9-11 hours a day. That’s where the bison’s large protruding shoulder hump comes in handy during the winter. It allows them to swing their heads from side-to-side to clear snow — especially for creating foraging patches. Learn how bison’s feeding habits can help ensure diversity of prairie plant species especially after a fire.

bison in the deep snow

11. From hunter to conservationist, Teddy Roosevelt helped save bison from extinction. In 1883, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison. After spending a few years in the west, Roosevelt returned to New York with a new outlook on life. He paved the way for the conservation movement, and in 1905, formed the American Bison Society with William Hornaday to save the disappearing bison. Today bison live in all 50 states, including Native American lands, wildlife refuges, national parks and private lands.

A bison stands in a meadow surrounded by trees.

12. Bison can live up to 20 years old. The average lifespan for a bison is 10-20 years, but some live to be older. Cows begin breeding at the age of 2 and only have one baby at a time. For males, the prime breeding age is 6-10 years. Learn how Interior works to ensure genetic diversity and long-term viability of bison.

bison herd on the move

13. A little dirt won’t hurt. Called wallowing, bison roll in the dirt to deter biting flies and help shed fur. Male bison also wallow during mating season to leave behind their scent and display their strength.

A bison rolling in the dirt.

14. The American bison’s ancestors can be traced to southern Asia thousands of years ago. Bison made their way to America by crossing the ancient land bridge that once connected Asia with North America during the Pliocene Epoch, some 400,000 years ago. These ancient animals were much larger than the iconic bison we love today. Fossil records show that one prehistoric bison, Bison latiforns, had horns measuring 9 feet from tip to tip.

Bison standing in the snow.

15. Bison are nearsighted — who knew? While bison have poor eyesight, they have excellent senses of smell and hearing. Cows and calves communicate using pig-like grunts, and during mating season, bulls can be heard bellowing across long distances.

A bison standing in front of a park information sign.

Her sick father was about to die, but that’s when a deer showed up

Latricia Thomas’ story is making the rounds on the internet — and for good reason. In a touching eulogy about her father who recently passed, a true miracle was revealed.

From Latricia Thomas:
“Thank you so much for all of the kind words and support after we lost my Daddy. I wanted to share with you the story that I wrote about his final days and read at his funeral.

When My Daddy was a hunter. Every year, on opening weekend of bow season, you could find him in a tree, in his camo at sunrise.

As the years went by, he traded his gun for a camera and instead taught his kids and grandkids how to enjoy the hobby he loved.

Last week, two days before he died, Daddy met his buck. It was gorgeous, a 10 point with six spikes on one side and four on the other. He came to the window where daddy was sitting in his favorite chair and looked in, right at him.”



When entering Yellowstone National Park, visitors are handed a pamphlet from park rangers with an illustration of a bison flinging a man into the air. The flyer, prompted by this year’s spike in bison attacks, issues what seems like an obvious warning: Get too close to large animals and you might get hurt. But some audacious visitors still aren’t getting the message.

Since the start of 2015, bison have attacked five Yellowstone visitors, including a 43-year-old woman in July who tried to take a selfie—standing less than 10 yards from a bison with her six-year-old daughter—before the animal subsequently charged the woman, tossing her into the air as she tried to escape.

Five bison gorings in a seven-month span marks a sizable jump from the 25 total incidents in which bison made contact with humans from 2000 through 2015, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. While rangers are at times on hand to warn tourists, up to 5,000 bison inhabit the more than 2-million-acre park, making it impossible to police every possible incident.

Moving within 25 yards of large animals in Yellowstone is illegal, and for good reason. Bison, North America’s largest land mammal, can pivot quickly on their front and hind legs and run three times the speed of a human. They have no motivation to attack people when left alone, but when repeatedly provoked by ambitious selfie-takers, angry bison can cause serious harm.

Bison aren’t the only animals punishing people for snapping selfies. In July, a man in San Diego tried to take a picture with a rattlesnake, then paid $153,000 for his hospital bill after the snake bit his arm. KGTV San Diego reported the man had picked up the rattlesnake from the brush in his attempt to enhance the photo.

In September last year, a black bear in New Jersey killed a hiker who tried to snap photos of the 300-pound animal. Investigators found the 22-year-old man’s phone, tooth puncture mark and all, with pictures of the bear standing roughly 100 feet away.

Yellowstone’s pamphlets try to prevent the bison equivalent of rattlesnake bites and deadly bear attacks, but they don’t seem to be dissuading people who value photo opportunities over their own safety. As long as this risky trend continues, tourists at Yellowstone can expect to see along with (and alongside) the amazing wildlife more examples of selfies gone wrong.