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American Bison

American Bison: A Natural History

Dale F. Lott
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 245
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    American Bison
    Book Description:

    American Bisoncombines the latest scientific information and one man's personal experience in an homage to one of the most magnificent animals to have roamed America's vast, vanished grasslands. Dale F. Lott, a distinguished behavioral ecologist who was born on the National Bison Range and has studied the buffalo for many years, relates what is known about this iconic animal's life in the wild and its troubled history with humans. Written with unusual grace and verve,American Bisontakes us on a journey into the bison's past and shares a compelling vision for its future, offering along the way a valuable introduction to North American prairie ecology. We become Lott's companions in the field as he acquaints us with the social life and physiology of the bison, sharing stories about its impressive physical prowess and fascinating relationships. Describing the entire grassland community in which the bison live, he writes about the wolves, pronghorn, prairie dogs, grizzly bears, and other animals and plants, detailing the interdependent relationships among these inhabitants of a lost landscape. Lott also traces the long and dramatic relationship between the bison and Native Americans, and gives a surprising look at the history of the hide hunts that delivered the coup de grâce to the already dwindling bison population in a few short years. This book gives us a peek at the rich and unique ways of life that evolved in the heart of America. Lott also dismantles many of the myths we have created about these ways of life, and about the bison in particular, to reveal the animal itself: ruminating, reproducing, and rutting in its full glory. His portrait of the bison ultimately becomes a plea to conserve its wildness and an eloquent meditation on the importance of the wild in our lives.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93074-2
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Harry W. Greene

    American Bison: A Natural Historyis the sixth volume in the University of California Press series on organisms and environments. Our unifying themes are the diversity of plants and animals, the ways in which they interact with each other and with their surroundings, and the broader implications of those relationships for science and society. We seek books that promote unusual, even unexpected connections among seemingly disparate topics, and we want to encourage projects that are distinguished by the unique perspectives and talents of their authors. Other volumes thus far have concerned the ecology of Arizona grasslands, the behavior of Bornean...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 1-4)

      Bison are gregarious mammals. Each gregarious mammal has a lot of relationships. This section is about bison relationships—what they are, how they’re expressed, what they do for bison, and how the animals manage them. When I first approached bison as a behavioral ecologist, I was in no position to appreciate any subtlety in their behavior. The scientific descriptions of their communication were still very sketchy. Eventually I would fill in some of those gaps. In the meantime the gaps were often frustrating. Yet at the same time it was refreshing, and in some ways more exciting, to be starting...

    • CHAPTER 1 Bull to Bull and Cow to Bull
      (pp. 5-22)

      The sky really is bigger in Montana—a colossal inverted bowl of vivid blue. In late July and early August, plumes of dust, rising with earth-warmed air from the brown grass and rolling rangeland, ascend into that bowl. The dust makers, a herd of bison on the National Bison Range, are going about their business—breeding; and I am going about mine—observing, recording, and trying to understand their behavior.

      Most of the dust comes from wallows, shallow pits where the bison have tom away the sod with their horns and where the subsoil, dried by the sun and stirred...

    • CHAPTER 2 Cow to Cow
      (pp. 23-27)

      Buffalo cows often seem as contented as the legendary Elsie. A small group grazes green grass, tails swinging languidly; heads nod gently each time a mouthful of grass is clamped between lower teeth and upper hard palate, then torn free with a little jerk. The group moves together, heads all pointing the same way, one cow or another pausing to lick a ticklish rib and look around, a few feet from the cow to the left, a foot or two further from or closer to the one to the right. Serenity personified—with big eyes and small horns. Well, why...

    • CHAPTER 3 Cow to Calf
      (pp. 28-36)

      On the National Bison Range calves are born in April and May—spring fever season. The snow has melted and the earth is warming. The new grass growth’s vibrant green is eclipsing the brown, dried grasses of winter. The golden yellow of arrowleaf balsam root and the purple of lupine contrast intensely with the new grass. I have watched dozens of calves emerge into this idyllic world. It’s a setting to encourage relaxation, even lassitude—I feel it, but the calves don’t seem to. Take the one I’m watching just now. Within a minute or two, as soon as his...


    • CHAPTER 4 Bison Athletics
      (pp. 41-46)

      Even though they’re imaginary, we can’t imagine Elsie the contented cow or Ferdinand the flower-loving bull winning a footrace with Silver, the Lone Ranger’s horse—and they couldn’t. But Harvey Wallbanger, a flesh-and-blood buffalo, regularly showed his heels to racehorses in the 440-yard dash. To be sure, these humiliated horses were not the fastest ever to go to the starting gate—in fact, many were among the slowest in America’s racing stables. Still, they were racehorses, while Harvey was basically an off-the-rack buffalo: the one who happened to be handy when a shrewd cowboy decided to go into the buffalo-racing...

    • CHAPTER 5 Digestion: Grass to Gas and Chips
      (pp. 47-52)

      When Buffalo Bill Cody took the Czarevitch on safari in what would become South Dakota, they rode through a sea of flesh at ground level, with more below ground and even some in the air. In just about every square mile, thousands of vertebrate hearts were beating every moment, sending hundreds of gallons of blood· coursing through thousands of miles of blood vessels. All this fabulous, teeming mass of animal matter and its motion was built from, and powered by, a growing grassland.

      A grassland’s plants combine the energy from the sun with water and nutrients from the soil to...

    • Plates
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 6 Temperature Control
      (pp. 53-56)

      Big Medicine was the first white buffalo born in the twentieth century. His mother lived on the National Bison Range, where she gave birth to him in May 1933. My mother lived on the National Bison Range too, and she gave birth to me in December 1933. My maternal grandfather was the Bison Range superintendent then, and my dad worked for him. I won’t say Granddad liked Big Medicine better than me, but the family photo collection contains many more snaps of Granddad and Big Medicine than of Granddad and me. Ah, well, a lot of us are born into...


    • CHAPTER 7 Ancestors and Relatives
      (pp. 61-68)

      Perhaps he fled the lions, his flying hooves hammering the grassy turf as he dashed past a herd of woolly mammoths or scattered a herd of Saiga antelope. Perhaps, being a prime bull at eight or nine years old, he faced and fought them. We don’t know the details, but we do know the lions prevailed: in a matter of minutes there was one less buffalo alive in Alaska. His killers were American lions, similar enough to those in Africa today that—though they were a bit bigger—the casual observer probably wouldn’t distinguish them. Very likely they hunted and...

    • CHAPTER 8 How Many? The Bison Population in Primitive America
      (pp. 69-76)

      There was a long silence—a shocked silence, it turned out—on the other end of the line. “Thirty million? But Dr. Lott, we’ve always understood there were sixty million.” ANational Geographicresearcher had called to hear my comments on a soon-to-be-published graph depicting the decline of the buffalo but was startled when I said the starting point of the graph was at least twice too high.

      “My editor isn’t going to want to take your word forthat. Can you suggest some references we could check?” Sure, I said, call Jim Shaw. They did, and when the graph...


    • CHAPTER 9 The Central Grassland: Where Buffalo Roam When They’re at Home
      (pp. 81-94)

      From southern Alberta to central Texas, from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, a sea of grass covered the middle of North America—the area called the Great Plains covered 15 percent of the entire continent. The bulk of primitive America’s bison population lived there. Plants conform to a simple general rule: where the clouds bring more water as rain and snow than the sun and wind can evaporate in an average year, trees grow. Grass grows where there is at least half as much precipitation as the sun and wind can evaporate. If there is so little precipitation...


    • [PART FIVE Introduction]
      (pp. 95-98)

      Bison biomass dominated North America’s central grasslands, but they were not alone out there. The central grasslands supported a rich community of vertebrates, many of them influencing and influenced by the bison. A few of the other species—elk, wolves, grizzly bears, and golden eagles—inhabited Asia, Europe, or both. But most existed only in North America, though not all—not even the bison—were limited to the central grasslands.

      As little as 150 years ago, when America’s prairie grasslands states and provinces were safari destinations for wealthy Europeans, the assemblage was still intact. Buffalo Bill could show it all...

    • CHAPTER 10 Wolves and Bison: Myths and Realities
      (pp. 99-104)

      It was late spring in Wood Buffalo Park, Northwest Territories, Canada. Fifty to sixty bison, many of them mothers with calves, were cautiously approaching a water hole when the wolves rushed them. The bison turned tail and ran.

      For a quarter of a mile they fled along a narrow trail through dense willows, and the wolves followed closely behind the last set of hooves, unable to move up beside the bison. But then the protective wall of willows ended at a meadow. Part of the herd ran close beside the trees on their right. As they swung right, three cows...

    • CHAPTER 11 Buffalo Birds
      (pp. 105-107)

      It’s May in the Wichita Mountains Refuge. The wind jostles my pickup gently, and sundown is coming soon. Twenty feet before me on a green flush of spring grass I watch two animals. One is a three-year-old bison bull. The other is a black, shiny male buffalo bird (we call them cowbirds nowadays), about the size of a blackbird. The bison is grazing—a step, several bites, another step.

      Really rich grouse hunters in Scotland employ beaters: people who march in a line, thrashing the bushes with sticks to flush the grouse from hiding and give the hunters a shot...

    • CHAPTER 12 Diseases and Parasites
      (pp. 108-119)

      Abison’s big body is the largest repository native to North America of the sun’s energy converted to flesh and blood. The size and numbers of their bodies made bison too big a resource to ignore, and many creatures have found a way to get a bit of the sun’s energy by tapping into the bison’s store. True, their sheer bigness thwarts many—coyotes, say, and even wolves—that might try to harvest this stored energy. But predators aren’t the only exploiters of bison. Like all big organisms they are a resource for hundreds of kinds of tiny life forms that...

    • CHAPTER 13 Pronghorn
      (pp. 120-126)

      When the bison were breeding on the National Bison Range, they usually absorbed all my attention. But in the quieter hours another sound sometimes registered in my mind between the roars and snorts of the rutting bulls—a wheezy nasal snort that seemed to echo itself as it was repeated in descending pitch. One particular day the pronghorn buck vocalist was “Graybuck,” a male in the prime of life named for the gray tint of his white markings. He was standing on a ridge, and as usual, he was the only adult male there. But he was with a group...

    • CHAPTER 14 Prairie Dogs
      (pp. 127-132)

      Black-tailed prairie dogs are small as individuals; each weighs only about a pound and a half. But their numbers—perhaps 5 billion little more than a century ago—made them loom large in the prairie’s economy. That abundance of flesh, blood, and burrows attracted a host of predators, parasites, and hangers-on. Prairie dogs were in many ways as central to the prairie economy as bison, but unlike bison they lived not just on the prairie but in it as well. Prairies have no trees, and thus prairie dogs spent their lives literally under the feet of bison. And it’s not...

    • CHAPTER 15 Badgers
      (pp. 133-137)

      I was excited by the anger of the men and excited by seeing the badger, excited by the prospect of killing a varmint.Iwouldn’t kill it, I was too young; but Dad and the neighbor were carrying their irrigation shovels. The neighbor, before he ran out of breath, had been cursing: “Damn badger ... digging holes all over my pasture.”

      They weren’t running fast. Middle-aged smokers wearing heavy rubber boots and carrying shovels are not fast. But it wasn’t far. We’d spotted the badger on the other side of the pasture and started right for it. The badger had...

    • CHAPTER 16 Coyotes
      (pp. 138-140)

      The versatile coyote, not paired with the badger to hunt squirrels, would probably search for some other kind of food, perhaps with other companions and collaborators. They’re able to turn up a meal in more North American settings than any mammal but humans. They’ll eat fruit, berries, insects, eggs, and animals as small as mice and as large as (usually young) antelope and sheep, and they’ll scavenge winter-killed elk and bison. They even form packs and hunt grown deer in deep snow.

      Opportunists that they are, they sometimes include poultry and lambs in their diet and for that we have...

    • CHAPTER 17 Grizzlies
      (pp. 141-144)

      In parts of the plains coyotes had to compete with one of the most formidable scavengers sinceTyrannosaurus rex: Griz—the Great Bear. Once known asUrsus horribilis, “the horrible bear,” it’s now known asUrsus arctos, “the holarctic bear.” It’s the brown bear of Europe and Asia, the Kodiak bear of the north Pacific coast, and the grizzly bear of North America’s mountains and plains.

      Lewis and Clark were the first European Americans to see a coyote, and they were taken by surprise—they hadn’t known it occupied the western plains. But they expected to see the great bear,...

    • CHAPTER 18 Ferrets
      (pp. 145-146)

      A grizzly digging for a prairie dog would be visible to the naked eye a country mile away. Abadger doing the same work would be in plain sight for at least 200 yards. But the badger has a slender cousin that slips into a prairie dog tunnel during the night without displacing a spoonful of earth.

      No human has ever seen the badger's cousin at work in a burrow that a prairie dog dug. What we can see only in our imagination must also take place in the prairie dog's nightmares. Is the dog awakened in its pitch-black burrow by...


    • CHAPTER 19 Close Encounters of the Buffalo Kind
      (pp. 151-157)

      Big sniff. Air rushing into vast nostrils an inch from my elbow. Another big sniff, this one above my elbow. The massive head moving up my arm. The dark, quiet eyes and just behind them ... horns. I'd seen horns like those puncture half an inch of plywood, puncture the rib cage of a bull bison—at a single stroke. Another big sniff at my shoulder, followed immediately by a snort that filled the cab of my pickup with buffalo breath, and the bull turned away.

      He left me all atingle, thrilled by the intimacy of the encounter and appalled...

    • CHAPTER 20 To Kill a Bison
      (pp. 158-166)

      Be a bison. A bison cow on the run, adrenaline soaring, heart racing, hooves flying. On the run from what? From whatever the bison all around you are running from. Something scared them, and the voice of your species’ experience tells you that when others run, safety lies in running with them. Being left behind is dangerous; so you run, simultaneously spurred and reassured by the pounding hooves beside you, before you, behind you. Predators can’t come through another bison, so hold your position and run. Just so was safety always secured: safety from lions, from short-faced bears, from wolves....

    • CHAPTER 21 Bison Numbers Before the Great Slaughter
      (pp. 167-169)

      The difficulty of estimating the bison population of primitive America shrinks in comparison to trying to estimate the numbers in North America just after the Civil War—just before the start of the commercial hide hunt often called “the Great Slaughter.” Many forces—horseback hunting, robe trading, habitat degradation—bore down on bison in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even the weather turned against them. Mary Meagher has pointed out to me that as a short-term climate change known as the little ice age ended in the mid-1800s, rising temperatures and declining precipitation would have lowered the Great Plains’ carrying...

    • CHAPTER 22 Where Have All the Bison Gone?
      (pp. 170-179)

      From tens of millions of buffalo—more than 30 billion pounds of living, breathing bison-mass—to a carpet of whitening bones and a few hundred scattered survivors. From teeming on the Great Plains to nearly extinct within a decade. One of evolution’s most abundant massive creatures all but exterminated by a band of malodorous outlaws, supported by a venal military and political establishment whose Indian policy was little short of genocide, who killed buffalo by the millions, took their hides, and left the rest to rot. At least that’s the story I grew up on. It’s a good western story...

    • CHAPTER 23 Attitudes
      (pp. 180-184)

      Today the hide hunt and the hide hunters seem utterly foreign to most of us. We wonder what they could have been thinking—no, feeling—that allowed them to kill and waste on that scale. We wonder what kind of people they were, what kind of attitudes they could have had to be willing to do what they did. Yet while the hide hunt was under way, the hunters got some good press. In December 1874Harper’s Weeklypublished an engraving by Paul Frenzeny and Jules Tavernier, who had seen the hunt. It shows a handsome, clean-cut young man standing...

    • CHAPTER 24 Conservation: Then and Now
      (pp. 185-201)

      On a quiet Sunday afternoon you could hear Andy Hodge’s guns for miles around the National Bison Range headquarters house. He’d practice with the .38 pistols for a while, then the 30.06 rifle, then the pistols again. Andy was good with those guns, and seemed ready to use them. People said he’d killed a man in Missouri before he came west to Montana. He wore an army overcoat summer and winter, and carried his Colt .38-caliber automatics in the large patch pockets. When he drove his Model T he put one of the pistols on the seat beside him. My...

    • CHAPTER 25 A Great Plains Park
      (pp. 202-204)

      George Catlin, who traveled, wrote about, and painted the plains between 1832 and 1839, proposed a Great Plains Park created by the national government, where herds of elks and buffalo would be protected in perpetuity. Catlin was writing more than thirty years before Yellowstone became the world's first national park. And he was extolling the beauty of the Great Plains’ biological community, not the spectacle of geysers, boiling mud, and rivers running in dramatic canyons they had worn through thousands of feet of rocks. Even today most of our parks and national monuments celebrate geological rather than biological phenomena. Catlin...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 205-212)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-222)
  13. Index
    (pp. 223-229)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 230-232)