Field Guide to the American Bison

By Teresa Scalzo
Jean Buchanan ’80 loves the pasture. “It feels like home,” she says. “It’s a pretty intact ecosystem.”

American bisonAmerican bison Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Fact Sheet

Status: Near threatened. Once numbering in the millions, there are now about 500,000 bison nationwide. In February President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, declaring these majestic animals the offcial mammal of the United States.

Diet: Mostly grass, shrubs, and twigs—bison are herbivores

Life span: 15 to 25 years

Size: North America’s largest land mammal, mature bulls stand up to 6 feet tall and 12 feet long.

Weight: 1,000 pounds (cows) to 2,200 pounds (bulls)

Spreed: Up to 40 miles per hour

Gestation: One calf after a nine-month pregnancy

Predators: Wolves, mountain lions, and bears can take down a very young or old bison.

Sustainable: Bison revitalize the prairie.

Buchanan currently grazes 21 head for NorthStar Bison on her land just outside Rice Lake, Wisconsin. She worked closely last year with herd manager Marielle Hewitt to prepare for the animals’ arrival, including mending and installing fences on about 80 of her 160 acres.

“We had a lot of fun that day,” says Hewitt. “I remember saying to Jean, ‘I wonder how many other women are out working in the pasture this morning.’ ”

Buchanan and Hewitt helped us put together this field guide to the great American bison.

Let’s start with this: bison are not buffalo.

They are not related to the Asian water buffalo or the African buffalo, which are the only true buffalo on the planet.

Second, bison are big. Really big. Mature bulls are 6 feet tall and 12 feet long, and they weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Cows weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. But bison are not docile lumbering lumps. They can run up to 40 miles an hour and jump six feet vertically.

Bison are curious, aggressive, and native to the North American plains, though at one time they roamed as far south as Mexico. Their meat is lean and delicious. Their coat is so thick and insulating that snow can cover it without melting.

Bison were critically important to many Plains Indian societies as a source of food, clothing, and tools. American Indians also revere bison on a spiritual level as a sign of strength, abundance, and prosperity.

Bison are not afraid of gunshot, which didn’t serve them well when European settlers were shooting them for meat and sport—and to control the Plains Indians. Once numbering in the millions, bison were hunted to near extinction. By 1890, only a few hundred animals remained. Yellowstone National Park is the only place on the continent that has been inhabited continuously by bison since prehistoric times.

Bison are not friendly. They may approach you because they are accustomed to seeing humans and they are curious. Do not mistake their curiosity for affection. Don’t sidle up next to them to take a selfie. And never touch their horns. They don’t like it, and should you get into a tussle with a bison, the bison will win. Unless you shoot it, which you shouldn’t. Although bison are not a protected species, they are a threatened one. Really, it’s best just to admire them from a distance.

Unlike cows, bison stay in the pasture 24/7. The bony hump at the top of their spine supports their huge head.

American bisonAmerican bison Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98
“Bison are mostly silent, unless the males are fighting or the mothers are talking to their babies,” says Marielle Hewitt, herd manager for NorthStar Bison, a ranch her family has owned and operated in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, since 1995.

Bison steaksBison steaks Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 Bison meatBison meat Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 Bison leatherBison leather Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

NorthStar bison are grass fed, because the ranchers believe that allowing the animals to eat their natural diet (rather than grain, corn, and soy) makes for healthier animals and better-quality, nutritious meat. Since 2005, NorthStar has done all of its processing at a facility in nearby Conrath, Wisconsin. “We owe it to the animal to use every part,” says Andre Abraham, who manages NorthStar’s fabrication process. In addition to meat, NorthStar sells leather goods, soap, fleece, and horn spoons—all made from bison.

Marielle HewittMarielle Hewitt Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98
“We always say, ‘You can get a bison to do whatever it wants to do,” says NorthStar’s herd manager Marielle Hewitt.

Jean Buchanan ’80Jean Buchanan ’80 Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98
“It’s fun to be part of a small farm,” says grazier Jean Buchanan ’80, who is in her second year of working with NorthStar. Her herd includes Irish, a 21-year-old bull.

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