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Buffalo (Bison)

BUFFALO (BISON)

BUFFALO (BISON). Until the end of the last Ice Age, bison were a minor species in North America. As a warming climate destroyed much of the forage upon which Ice Age megafauna such as mammoths and mastodons relied, and as human hunters destroyed those megafauna who remained, bison emerged as the dominant species of the Great Plains. The grasslands may have supported as many as 30 million bison, but changing ecological factors such as drought, blizzards, wolf predation, and the competition of other grazing animals probably caused the bison population to fluctuate considerably.

For thousands of years, Native Americans hunted bison from foot. They surrounded herds, setting fire to the grasses to enclose the animals for the kill. In other instances, they drove herds into corrals or over cliffs. Such techniques demanded the cooperation of large communities. Success was unpredictable, however, and most pedestrian bison hunters combined their pursuit of the herds with other subsistence strategies such as planting or gathering.


The arrival of horses to the plains transformed the relationship between hunters and the bison. Spanish colonists introduced horses to North America in the sixteenth century; the animals diffused into the Great Plains in the early eighteenth century. By the end of the century, several Native American groups, among them the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Crows, had abandoned their former resource strategies and reinvented themselves as nomadic, equestrian bison hunters. That strategy sustained the nomads until the 1830s, when steamboats began to ascend the Missouri River, inaugurating a trade in bison robes that lasted until the late 1860s. Nomadic hunters supplied Euro-American traders with tens of thousands of robes annually, significantly depleting the bison population in the Great Plains.

In the 1870s, Euro-American hunters, in combination with drought and the arrival of millions of domestic livestock to the grasslands, nearly exterminated the remaining bison. While the United States government neither organized nor prosecuted the destruction of the bison, certain of its representatives endorsed it. Congressional efforts to put a stop to the slaughter in the mid-1870s were stymied by Interior Department officials who anticipated that the destruction of the bison would force the Sioux, Cheyennes, and other Native American groups to submit to the reservation system. The species was reduced to a few thousand by 1883.

In the early twentieth century, the American Bison Society, an organization made up largely of wealthy and influential easterners, managed to install a small number of bison on federal preserves as part of a nostalgic and nationalist project of frontier and wilderness preservation. A larger number of bison survived on ranches that raised them as profitable novelties. By the end of the twentieth century there were roughly 250,000 bison in North America descended from the few survivors of the nineteenth century, and bison meat had gained favor as an alternative to beef.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environ-mental History, 1750–1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Andrew C.Isenberg

See alsoGreat Plains ; Indians and the Horse ; Tribes: Great Plains .

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buffalo (in zoology)

buffalo, name commonly applied to the American bison but correctly restricted to certain related African and Asian mammals of the cattle family. The water buffalo, or Indian buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, is found in S Asia. It is a large, extremely strong, dark gray animal, standing nearly 6 ft (180 cm) at the shoulder and weighing up to 2,000 lb (900 kg). Its widely spread horns curve out and back in a semicircle and may reach a length of 6 ft (180 cm). For many centuries it has been domesticated as a draft animal, but wild forms still exist in Borneo and herds descended from domesticated animals live in a wild state elsewhere. Water buffalo live in swampy areas and near rivers, where they wallow in the mud. Wild water buffalo are extremely fierce and have been known to kill fully grown tigers. The domestic forms are somewhat more docile. They are used throughout S Asia to pull plows and carts; they are of little importance as dairy animals, as their milk is scant. Their diet consists chiefly of grass. The anoa, Anoa depressicornus, also called dwarf buffalo or wood buffalo, is the smallest of the buffalo, standing only 40 in. (100 cm) high at the shoulder; it is found in Sulawesi. Its slightly larger relative, the tamarou, Anoa mindorensis, is found in the Mindoro region of the Philippines. Both are forest dwellers. The large, fierce cape buffalo is found in Africa. Buffalo are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Bovidae.

See D. A. Dary, The Buffalo Book (1974).

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buffalo

buf·fa·lo / ˈbəfəˌlō/ • n. (pl. same, -loes or -los) 1. a heavily built wild ox (genus Bubalus, family Bovidae) with backswept horns, found mainly in the Old World tropics. See also water buffalo. ∎  the North American bison. 2. (also buf·fa·lo fish) a large grayish-olive freshwater fish with thick lips, common in North America. • Genus Ictiobus, family Catostomidae: several species. • v. (-loes, -loed) [tr.] (often be buffaloed) inf. overawe or intimidate (someone): she didn't like being buffaloed. ∎  baffle (someone): the problem has buffaloed the advertising staff.

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buffalo

buffalo Any of several horned mammals and a misnomer for the North American bison. The massive ox-like Indian, or water, buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is often domesticated for milk and hides. Height: 1.5m (5ft). Family Bovidae.

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buffalo

buffalo Common name for several species of cattle-like mammals (Bovidae) occurring in Africa south of the Sahara and in south-eastern Asia. The N. American Bison is sometimes incorrectly called ‘buffalo’.

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