||The Mammals of Texas -
Artiodactyla : Family Bovidae :
Bos bison (Linnaeus)
Description. A large, cowlike
mammal with distinct hump in the shoulder region; head,
neck, shoulders, and forelegs with long, shaggy hair;
hind part of body with short hair; head heavy with short,
curved, black horns; tail short and ending in tuft of
hair; color brownish black anteriorly, brownish
posteriorly. Dental formula: I 0/3, C 0/1, Pm 3/3, M 3/3
X 2 = 32. External measurements approach: (males) total
length, 3,400 mm; tail, 610 mm; hind foot, 610 mm; height
at shoulders, 1,800 mm; females somewhat smaller. Weight
of bulls, 700-1,000 kg; females, 300-400 kg.
Distribution in Texas.
Formerly widespread in the western two-thirds of Texas;
now extirpated or confined in captivity. It is no longer
considered a game animal in Texas.
Habits. In early days
the bison was found in great numbers over a vast range in
North America. With the westward expansion of the white
settlers, it became an object of exploitation on a
tremendous scale that resulted in its total disappearance
from the East and its almost complete extermination over
much of its western range. By 1825 it had become
practically extinct east of the Mississippi River. The
building of the transcontinental railways after 1830
hastened the slaughter of the vast herds west of the
river. In the 1870s hundreds of thousands were recklessly
killed for their hides and tongues. In 1877-78 the last
great slaughter of the "southern herd" took
place south of the main transcontinental railroads. In
the north their numbers likewise rapidly decreased.
When protection of the buffalo was
under consideration by the Texas Legislature, General
Phil Sheridan opposed it, pointing out that the sooner
the buffalo was eliminated the sooner the Indian would be
starved into submission. Sure enough, before 1880 both
the buffalo and the Indian had all but passed away.
The big slaughter took place about
1877-78 when there were reported to be 1,500 hunting
outfits working out of Fort Griffin (Shackelford County)
alone. More than 100,000 hides were taken in the months
of December and January of that winter. From 1881 to
about 1891 there were shipments of buffalo bones from
Texas totaling $3 million in value.
In the late 1880s it was realized that
the bison was approaching extinction. By then, there were
left in the United States only a few privately owned
herds and a herd in Yellowstone National Park. It was not
until May of 1894 that an effective law for the
preservation of the bison was passed by the United States
Congress, and subsequently, the various herds were built
up in the United States and Canada. By 1933 the total
population of bison in North America was estimated at
21,000, of which the greater part (17,000) were in Canada
on the Buffalo National Park near Wainwright, Alberta.
The bison of the western United States
is normally a dweller of open prairies. The subspecies B.
b. athabascae of Canada and the Old World relative (Bos
bonasus), however, are forest animals. This, together
with the fact that our plains bison lacks the keen
eyesight of most plains dwellers but has a keen sense of
smell, suggests that at some remote time in the past the
plains bison, too, lived in woodland areas.
Bison are gregarious creatures that
live together in herds, except for the old bulls which,
especially in spring and early summer, lead a more or
less solitary existence. During the period of rut in July
and August, and again in winter, the old bulls tend to be
more tolerant of the herd. Normally, bison are
unobtrusive but when angered or when called upon to
protect their calves they are vicious and dangerous. As
with domestic cattle, old bulls are surly and may attack
with slight provocation, as will cows with calves.
The daily activity of bison is much
like that of domestic cattle. The chief feeding periods
are early morning and late afternoon, with midday given
over to cud-chewing, siesta, and wallowing. Normally,
nighttime is a period of rest. Formerly, the plains bison
migrated seasonally, going south as far as Florida and
Texas in winter, and northward again in summer. Their
normal gait is a plodding walk, which may break into a
swinging trot or, when frightened or angered, a
Plains bison are predominantly grazers,
feeding chiefly on grasses and secondarily on forbs.
Browse species contribute slightly to their menu. Because
of this, competition between bison and domestic cattle
for range forage is so great that we cannot afford, for
economic reasons, the return of the bison to anything
like its former numbers.
The period of rut is July and August.
The animals are promiscuous in mating habits but usually
only the large, mature bulls do the breeding. Young and
undersized bulls are driven from the herd to linger on
the outskirts and await with anticipation the opportunity
to participate whenever the herd bull is off guard. As
with range cattle, a scale of social dominance is
established with each bull next highest dominating those
The period of gestation is 8½ - 9
months the calves arriving in April, May, or early
June. One calf at a time is the rule; twins are rare. The
young one normally is weaned in late fall, but
occasionally it continues to nurse until the arrival of
the next calf. Sometimes cows breed only in alternate
years. Sexual maturity is reached in the third year.
According to Cahalane, cows have remained productive for
40 years indicating a life span of at least 45 years.
At present, the plains bison has little
economic importance. There is some demand for its flesh
as food for man, but the temperament of the beast will
not permit its wide replacement of cattle.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and