Animal Moments

Buffalo at Hot City


My response to buffalo (Bison bison) is emotional rather than intellectual. There is something about them that is quintessentially western. That and perhaps their great size (they are the largest mammal in North America) move me strangely. A mature bull can weigh as much as a ton and may be up to six feet tall at the shoulder. Their huge heads and prominent shoulder humps make these animals even more imposing.

We associate buffalo (although more correct, "bison" just doesn't capture my image of these animals) with the American west. In fact, in pre-Columbian times and even into the 18th century, buffalo also inhabited what are now the eastern United States. The best estimate for their maximum population in the New World is 20-30 million (not the 60 million sometimes cited). After decades of slaughter, the buffalo were practically extinct by the late 19th century. The quarter of a million buffalo that survive in North America today (about 90 percent of them in captive herds) descend from some 85 wild buffalo calves that were rounded up and bred by a half-dozen forethoughtful men near the turn of the 20th century.


Among the buffalo herds in the western U.S., I am best acquainted with a Wyoming State herd (one of several) that lives in the prairie-clad hills above Thermopolis, Wyoming. Thermopolis, literally “hot city,” is a town built near/on the world’s largest single-source hot springs. In addition to the bison herd, Thermopolis offers hot springs for bathing and swimming, a dinosaur museum and active dig sites, the remarkable Wind River Canyon, which cuts through the geological column and reveals strata ranging from 2.8 billion (Pre-Cambrian) to 300 million years old (end of the Permian) in the course of a 35-mile drive, and excellent bird-watching along the Big Horn River. 


To most people who have observed them casually, buffalo appear to be placid animals. I have not yet been lucky enough to watch these creatures when their life gets more dramatic, as it does in the mid-summer breeding season. Then the cows in estrus dash among the males to attract mates, and the bulls indulge in noisy, energetic, and sometimes quite violent fighting to establish their dominance. Fighting, breeding, and bearing young are expensive of energy, and buffalo must prepare for the long, often hungry winter months by building up fat reserves. That is why they spend most of their time grazing, ruminating, and resting up for life’s next challenge.


March 27, 2009

More about Buffalo

I recommend a wonderful book on the natural history of the bison and the other animals who share their habitat: Dale F. Lott, American Bison: A Natural History, University of California Press (Berkeley): 2002. Lott's grandfather and father were superintendent and employee at the National Bison Range in western Montana, and he spent the first six years of his life there. You can learn about the bison range by visiting the website: