Bison have always been an integral part of Great Plains tribal cultures, providing food, clothing, shelter, tools, fuel, and spirituality. The Lakota call them tatanka. Chief Sitting Bull was Tatanka Iyotake.
A bison with white fur is spiritually significant to a number of Native American religions and often part of their religious rituals. The coats of buffalo are almost always brown and their skin is dark brown or black. However, white bison do occur. They may be albino with white fur and red eyes or leucistic with white fur and blue eyes. They could have a rare genetic condition that causes them to be born white, then turn brown. Or they are beefalo with white coloration from their cattle ancestors.
White bison are extremely rare. The National Bison Association estimates they occur in approximately one out of every 10 million births.
Bison calves are usually born in late March through May and are orange-red, earning them the nickname red dogs. After a few months, their fur begins turning dark brown and the characteristic shoulder hump and horns start to develop.
Determining their mood
If you want to judge a bison's mood, don't go by its face. Check the other end. If the tail hangs down and switches naturally, the bison is probably calm. If the tail is standing straight up, it may be ready to charge. Regardless, bison are unpredictable and can attack at any time. Each year, hundreds of injuries are caused by people venturing too close to these massive animals.
Bison are not only big, they’re also quite fast, running up to 35 mph. They’re extremely agile and able to turn very quickly, jump high fences, and are strong swimmers.
(Jack Charles on Unsplash)
Important eating habits
Like cattle, bison have four stomachs. Rumination, along with a four-chamber stomach, makes it possible for them to absorb plant cellulose that's difficult to digest.
Bison forage a wide array of grasses and sedges commonly found in mixed-grass prairies. Although bison graze heavily on grass species, they occasionally consume woody vegetation. By eating mostly grass and selectively avoiding other plants, bison create a pattern of grazed and ungrazed areas.
These areas resemble a patchwork quilt of various plant species. After a wildfire, grasses establish before other plant species. Bison prefer areas containing abundant grass without having to eat around the woody plants that take longer to establish after a disturbance. Bison increase biodiversity by allowing a variety of plants to grow in burned areas. Higher plant biodiversity increases plant cover, gas exchange, and biomass. Photosynthesis also increases due to the increased light and reduced competition for water and nutrients.
Bison grazing patterns greatly influence the prairie ecosystem. Their selective foraging is important to prevent woody vegetation from flourishing in grassy landscapes. The result is a landscape of diverse plant species in the prairie ecosystem.
Transmitted by aborted fetuses, brucellosis is a highly contagious bacterial disease affecting cattle, bison, elk, and deer. Carried by females, it can cause infertility, abortions, and scarce milk production, making it especially devastating for those whose livelihood depends on livestock.
Although there are no documented cases of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle, approximately 60% of female Yellowstone bison have tested positive for the disease. However, testing positive doesn't mean an animal can transmit it.
Yellowstone National Park must adhere to state and federal laws designed to keep the bison population in check. In 1995, the state of Montana sued Yellowstone after bison wandered onto private land. This led to the creation of the Interagency Bison Management Plan that set a limit of 3,000 bison in the park. However, bison breed 10 times faster than humans, which causes their numbers to rise as much as 17% annually.
To avoid killing these beautiful beasts, Yellowstone officials tried to find a middle ground by sending them to Fort Peck, home of a Montana quarantine facility and Native American reservation. There the animals could be tested for brucellosis rather than killed. However, that process can take up to a year. Although a vaccine (RB51) was approved for cattle in 1996, it is not yet approved for bison.
The state of Montana rejected the plan. Ranchers believed it was still too risky to transport bison near their cattle unless the animals received a clean bill of health before transport and were released somewhere else.
Today, the National Park Service informs tribes about the number of bison available. Tribes contract with cattle haulers to pick them up in Yosemite. The large hides and abundant meat go directly to the Native American tribes that contracted with the haulers.
As of fall 2016, Yellowstone National Park estimates the wild bison population at approximately 5,000. This population is comprised of at least two distinct sub-populations, the northern and central herds. The number is dangerously low when compared to the tens of millions that originally roamed across North America. It is mistakenly argued that 3,000 is too many bison because that number exceeds the ecological carrying capacity of Yellowstone's habitat.
Thus, the ongoing bison slaughter continues. A recent scientific study suggests bison have not reached a theoretical food-limited population of 6,200 in Yellowstone. However, results of an Oregon State University study suggest the increasing numbers are now a barrier to ecosystem recovery in the northern part of the park.
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