Nature of the Animal

As massive and bulky as they appear, many people are under the impression that bison are slow and awkward. In reality, bison can outrun and easily out-maneuver most horses. They have the agility of a deer. And if on the run, they can easily break through seemingly adequate corrals.

Well-known and admired for their stamina, bison are lightning fast and can run for many miles. They can sprint upwards of 40-miles per hour and have the ability to jump straight up from a complete standstill. Much like a mountain goat, a bison can traverse rough, rocky terrain. At the same time, they are content on the flat prairies many call home.

Although bison are normally quite docile and may allow people to approach them, they can be unpredictable and may charge people or machines in the blink of an eye. They can pivot on their hind feet as well as their front feet and are incredibly fast.

Bison seem to thrive in many environments. They have been taken from the sub-zero temperatures of the Dakotas in mid-winter, directly to the sub-tropical climate of the Hawaiian Island of Kauai with no ill effects. Bison are raised in areas ranging from the harsh climate of Kodiak Island, Alaska to the extremely warm climates of Florida and Texas.

Bison are naturally hardy and extremely healthy. They have very few natural predators and are known to hold their own against Kodiak bears. Their biggest threat is disease transmission from other, non-native species, and parasites.

Even in ranch environments, bison have retained their natural instincts for survival. They can weather storms and help their newborn calves survive in blizzards that would kill entire herds of cattle. Bison stand face first into the winter winds as the wind blows their hair down. They don't turn their hindquarters into the wind, nor do they move with it. Their heavy winter coats provide all the protection they need from the bitter cold.

In winter both sexes are covered with a thick, woolly coat of dark-brown hair with longer and darker hair on their heads and forequarters. Bison can root through deep snow cover to get to the grass below, using their massive head like a shovel to push the snow out of the way. When necessary, they can eat snow for water or use their muzzle or hooves to break ice to reach water.

The heat of summer doesn't bother bison. After shedding their heavy coats in spring, long hair remains on the animal's head, forelegs and hump. They languish in the sun and keep their noses into the breeze. Bison love water. They have the ability to smell water from miles away, and are excellent swimmers.

Bison mature later than cattle and normally breed at two years of age. After a gestation period of 280-days, bison cows produce calves. Most calves are born in the spring as the rutting season is typically in July and August. At birth, they weigh around 40-pounds and shortly after birth calves are standing, nursing and able to keep up with their mothers and the herd.

Bison calves nurse more frequently than other ruminants and they begin to eat forage on their first day of life. They grow and develop rapidly, typically weighing about 450 pounds by their first birthday. They mature in 5-6-years, with cows weighing about 1,000-pounds and bulls weighing from 1,500 to over 2,000-pounds.

Bison are very protective and operate as a group when threatened. They face into the threat and back each other up. They are protective of their young and will position themselves between a perceived threat and their calves.

Bison are curious, intelligent, territorial, dignified, playful and tremendously strong. The nature of the animal requires they be treated with respect and caution; they are wild animals. They are not mean animals, but will not hesitate to react if they feel threatened.

Bison are adaptable, hardy, disease-resistant and majestic. They are unique animals that have survived near-extinction to rally back from the brink of disaster. They offer to us those traits that have enabled them to survive. By working with these animals, learning what makes them successful in a variety of situations and environments, we gain much from these creatures and ensure their continued presence in our future.



Most text excerpted from Bison Breeder's Handbook, 4th edition 2001, copyright 2001 National Bison Association.