American Buffalo are bison, not buffalo (just like Prairie Dogs aren’t dogs and Koala Bears aren’t bears).
Crazy, right? Hope you were sitting down.
Shall we science?
Actual buffalo (Water Buffalo) are classified under Bubalus bubalis. American Buffalo fall under the classification Bison bison, which consists of two living subspecies:
- Wood or Mountain Bison (Bison bison athabascae), which ranges throughout Alaska and much of western Canada.
- Plains or Common Bison (aka, American Buffalo), which is classified as Bison bison bison (no joke), making the American Buffalo as bison as it gets.
American Buffalo and actual buffalo are incapable of interbreeding. American Buffalo can, however, interbreed with European Bison (Bison bonasus). It looks like a bison, walks like a bison, and exhibits the same genetic markers as a bison. Ergo, American Buffalo are bison.
But call it what you like.
There’s more at stake concerning our understanding of American Buffalo/Plains Bison than DNA and taxonomy. Bison bison bison is its own, unique animal despite what we call it and bison impact their native habitat in specialized ways.
Bison graze in patches, which increases nutrient and gas exchange (specifically nitrogen) and photosynthesis. This, in-turn, allows a greater variety of flora to cover a greater extent of land without exhausting said land. Bison wallows create micro-ecosystems and are resistant to prairie fires. Together, patch grazing and bison wallows allow prairies to readily bounce back from fire damage. Bison also increase the foraging ability of prairie dogs, a food source of small predators (badgers, coyotes, etc.). Similarly, bison and bison carrion feed apex predators and scavengers, alike.
By fostering greater biodiversity, prairie ecosystems are healthier, more resilient, and more stable where bison graze. Wildlife managers cannot simply place cattle, water buffalo, or any other large bovine in the prairie and expect the same results. For their positive impact on their native habitat, bison are worth protecting.
To me, the resurging Plains Bison, even more so than the Bald Eagle, is the archetypal symbol of American frontiersmanship and natural resilience. But I don’t think it’s just me. Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana chose the Plains Bison to represent their roots and values on their official state quarters. The US Department of the Interior’s seal depicts a sun rising over snow-capped mountains behind a rolling plain and a lone Plains Bison. Look closely at the US National Parks Service Arrowhead, NPS’s official emblem. That ghostly apparition below the sequoia near the tip is, of course, a bison.
In the 19th century, tens of millions of Plains Bison were slaughtered. They quickly became a popular symbol for the loss of a rugged way of life that was highly attuned to wilderness. (Hollywood, in particular, has harped on this theme time and again—perhaps, most memorably through the “Tatanka” scenes in Dances with Wolves.) Nearly hunted to extinction, Plains Bison are now returning to their vital role in maintaining healthy prairies through near-miraculous restoration efforts in the Great Plains. For its importance to our national and natural heritage, bison are worth protecting. In Value of Species, Edward L. McCord argues that a species’ uniqueness—the incalculable odds and inimitable circumstances that fostered the evolution of any given species—along with what its adaptations can teach us about ourselves and our world gives a species the right to exist. All species, not just bison, are worth protecting.
Humans are in a bind.
We can, have, and continue to destroy entire species. We are the only species who does so knowingly. Yet, we are also the only species with the ability to protect entire species from extinction—especially, extinction due to our own actions and inactions. But few issues are ever so black-and-white. Destroying habitat (clearing forests, planting crops, etc.) often feeds and shelters people, Homo sapiens, another unique species that has every right to life and, as wiser folk have argued, to pursue happiness (starting with food and shelter).
There are no easy solutions but every great endeavor (every fight worth fighting) requires considerable trials and tribulations—thought, cooperation, work, and luck. Maintaining a healthy Earth—species by species and habitat by habitat—will be our own species’ greatest endeavor.
But first, we must care.
Seek the debate and engage. Yes, nature will “always find a way.” (I hear that a lot. It’s thinly veiled apathy.) Yes, the elements will eventually, over eons, erase humankind’s mark. But let’s forget eons and, instead, think in the now and coming centuries. What will be left when we’re old? What quality of life will our children and grandchildren inherit? After all, they have that same right to life and the pursuit of happiness.
Care because (contrary to the popular but often misread and misrepresented adage) life will not always find a way—at least, not specific life or life as we know it. What’s lost is lost. Nature will erase but not undo. And so much life teeters on the brink.
Simple solutions are rarely achieved where conservation and industry collide. People define progress very differently depending on their needs and values. Unfortunately, I don’t (and will never pretend to) have all the answers. But I hope I’ve piqued your interest and, at least, convinced you that American Buffalo are bison—in fact, Bison bison bison—as uniquely bison as it gets.
American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella (everything you ever wanted to know about bison plus a little adventure)
Value of Species by Edward L. McCord