All Content Sourced from The Bison Producers Handbook.
Bison originated from their ancestors, The Wooly Mammoth, during the Ice Age over 1.8 million years ago. Bison have been known throughout history as a large herbivore expanding in herds over major parts of Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. The Bisons’ large body size has proven throughout history to demonstrate adaptive advantages in colder climates. Their bigger, more compact body mass reduces heat loss. The Bison’s longer, thicker body hair also provides them some protection from the cold, making a noticeable physical difference compared to today’s animals.
The frequency as to which the bison appear in cave drawings across its ancestor’s European herds depicts its importance to early humans and their survival. The Ice Age Bison were much larger in size, as everything else discovered from this time period has proven to be. The Bison Priscus (The Scientific Name for the Ice Age Bison) males had horn spreads reaching more than 2 meters and were in total about 40% larger than today’s North American Bison (or Bison Latifrons, The Scientific Name for the North American Bison we know today). As early as 50,000 years ago, scientists began to notice a decline in the bison’s size in correlation to a warming climate, thus signaling the end of The Ice Age. With the disappearance of the Bering Land Bridge, the North American Bison were separated from their European cousins indefinitely. The Bison herds concentrated mostly west of the Mississippi River, where they found ample prairie grass extending past the horizon.
The first scientific record of the North American Bison was recorded in 1758 by Linnaeus. He named the Bison, Bos Bison, describing them as a species of cattle. The discovery was recorded in the Quivira Region of Northern Mexico, otherwise known as Kansas today. By 1947, a lot of taxonomy studies had been conducted on the local species of bison in existence in comparison to those discovered to be extinct. In all, it was concluded that there are a total of 27 species, and subspecies of extinct and living bison in North America. In concluding that theory over time, Bison have, in fact, changed genetically. All species differ slightly from place to place based on the geology and environmental conditions sustaining them at that time.
In 1908, the first Bison Kill (or Bison Jump) was discovered and concluded to be constructed by the Paleo Indians in what is now New Mexico. Subsequently, more kill sites began to be excavated throughout a wide area of the western United States. The number of kill sites discovered later gave way to the nickname given to the culture describing the Paleo Indians, “The Big Game Hunters”. These kill sites made way for evidence of the Indian’s subsistence lifestyles. Many of the Indigenous tribes near the Great Plains were also discovered to practice a subsistence lifestyle largely revolving around the hunting and harvesting of bison. They too used bison jumps or pattern corralling techniques. They did this until they transferred into a horse-centered hunting culture introduced to them by their invaders.
Sparse bison herds were noted to exist in the east, as far north as New England, and as far south as the Northern Florida Keys. When the mighty bison herds used to stretch from horizon to horizon, the American Indians depended heavily on them for an unending supply of food, raw materials for tools, clothing, and numerous other products. Bison were said to have sustained both the spiritual and physical lives of the lands’ inhabitants. The Industrial Revolution began the near extinction of the North American Bison, as the markets demanded leather belts made from their hides in order to keep new and existing factories up and running. This period was deemed “The Great Slaughter” leaving as few as 1,000 North American Bison species remaining. This was about 1/2000th of their pre-existing population. This rapid reduction in a mass population is called the “Bottleneck Effect”. This slaughter selectively killed off the largest animals and the most robust bulls, thus eliminating the genetic diversity that was once present in the North American Bison herds.
The extermination of Bison was thwarted with the establishment of the American Bison Association in 1905, and many other organizations and efforts, public and private, attempting to purchase bison and their native lands to ensure that they may continue to thrive un-harmed or hunted.