The American bison. Bison are now ranched as a food crop. Photo by Robin Hindle | SXC.




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KAREN HOCHMAN is Editorial Director of THE NIBBLE.



June 2006
Last Updated April 2014

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Meat & Poultry

Bison Vs Buffalo: The Difference

Page 2: Bison Facts

This is Page 2 of a three-page article on bison facts. Click on the black links below to visit other pages.


Bison Vs. Buffalo & Cattle

Bison, water buffalo and cattle are cousins in the scientific classification of the animal kingdom. As you can see in the chart below, they belong to the same family and subfamily, and only branch out at the genus level, the second lowest taxonomic rank.

As a comparison, chimpanzees and humans share the same family and subfamily (along with 98% of the same DNA), but differ at the Genus level. Chimps are in the genus Pan and humans are in the genus Homo sapiens.

Bison Water Buffalo Cattle

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bison

Species: B. bison

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Artiodactyla

Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bubalus
Species: B. bubalis

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bos
Species: B. primigenius
Subspecies: B. p. taurus, B. p. indicus

All breeds of European cattle such as Angus and Hereford, which were brought to America by settlers and comprise our domestic herds, belong to the Tarus species of cattle. Bos indicus are the humped cattle or brahmin cattle (see photo on next page) that originated on the Indian subcontinent.

Bison Facts

So who (or what) is this bison?

  • Bison are the largest native animals to roam North America since the end of the Ice Age. Once near extinction, they have been brought back to a critical mass due to the demand for its healthy meat. Yellowstone National Park has the largest free roaming bison herd in the world, about 3,500 head.
  • Today there are about 500,000 bison in the U.S.; about 40,000 are slaughtered each year for consumption. By comparison, about 125,000 beef cattle go to market each day in the U.S. alone.
  • Bison are much smarter and more interesting than cattle. They are highly intelligent, curious, playful and powerful. While some may seem gentle, bison are not domesticated† animals but wild animals that can’t be tamed. As a result, they are harder to handle and more powerful than cattle. In spite of all their shoulder bulk, they are surprisingly nimble, and are said to be as agile as goats. Bison can jump fences that would contain most cattle, and, when startled, can jump over another bison to make their getaway.
  • Bison can live for 30 years or longer. They their mature size at 5 to 6 years old. The cows (females) weigh about 1000 to 1200 pounds, and the bulls (males) weigh about 1500 to 2000 pounds. Cows begin to breed when they are two years old and can produce a calf each year under good conditions (plentiful food, good weather). The gestation is 9-1/2 months; calves are born from mid-April through June.
  • Like cattle, bison are herbivores and eat grass. Production methods are similar to those for cattle, except the use of growth hormones is illegal on bison. Plus, bison are generally not castrated: because they grow at a slower rate than cattle, to castrate them would be cost-prohibitive for meat production.
  • Bison meat is healthier, less fatty meat. Bison meat contains 2.42 grams of fat, 143 calories and 82 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of cooked meat. Beef has about 3.5 times more fat per 100 grams of cooked lean beef. Despite the lower level of fat, bison meat has a richer and somewhat sweeter flavor than beef.

†Cattle are one of the first animals domesticated by man, tamed to provide milk, meat, hides and for draft purposes. They were probably first domesticated in Europe and Asia about 8,500 years ago.

The Near-Extinction & Resurgence Of Bison

Most American students have studied the tragedy of the bison: how the great natural herds were slaughtered to the brink of extinction by commercial hunters and sports hunters—which simultaneously starved off many Native American tribes, who relied on the bison for food, clothing, coverings for their lodges, sinew for bow strings, tools and fuel. Bison once ranged over most of the continent, from the Rockies east to almost the Atlantic Ocean (hence Buffalo, New York); and from Mexico to as far north as Canada’s Great Slave Lake.

A prominent naturalist, artist and author of Wild Animals I Have Known, Ernest Thompson Seton, working in the mid- to late-1800s, made a scientific estimate of 75 million bison.  (His 1898 book is still in print—click here for more information.) Native Americans, using only bow and arrow, killed only what they needed to live on; beginning in the 1870s, white hunters with rifles began a mass slaughter of herds to sell the hides. The bison herds began to deplete. The great wealth of bison was almost completely wasted by men who wanted only the hides and tongues, and left the meat and other valuable parts to rot in the sun.

Around 1870, Argentina, the main source for fine leather used in Europe, had extinguished its own source of leather, the wild Pampas cattle. Bison skins quickly became the new source for fine European leather: Hides were more valuable than ever and the fate of the bison was sealed.

  Wild Animals I Have Known
Written in 1898, it’s a great story. Find it on

With zealous hunting, their end was in sight by 1880. The thundering herds that a few decades earlier were so vast they could not be counted (a train on the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1868 traveled 120 miles through one continuous herd), had disappeared. The last great herds of 1881 and 1882 were surrounded by hunters blocking their migration routes. Records show that 200,000 hides were shipped east in 1882, a figure that dropped to 40,000 in 1883, and to just 300 hides in 1884. By then the bison were gone: the most extensive hunt of a single species of mammal in the history of the world had wiped them out. Ernest Thompson Seton, in 1895, said he could verify only 800 bison existing in all of North America.

By 1889, the few remaining animals were saved by the combined efforts of William Hornaday, Director of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) and a small group of ranchers. In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed to save the bison and protect rangeland for the animals.

Private ranchers kept significant numbers of bison from certain slaughter in the wild. Texan Charles Goodnight had captured bison calves and raised them on his ranch as early as 1876. In 1910 he had 125 animals and had already sold some to zoos and to Yellowstone Park. Offspring of wild bison captured in western Oklahoma in 1883 ended up in the New York Zoological Park in 1904. Three years later some of them were shipped back to their original Oklahoma range, and became the nucleus of the present-day herd of 600 in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Part of the herd at Full Circle Bison Ranch in Oregon.

Today, more than 100 years later, most of North America’s 350,000 bison are found on commercial ranches. Over the last several decades, the search for heart-healthy and gourmet meats has led to commercial ranching of bison, which has led to a resurgence of the herds. The National Bison Association has more than 2,400 members in 50 states and 20 countries; the Canadian Bison Association has 1,400 members. The industry is showing strong growth of 15 to 20 percent a year. The federal government is not involved: it is supply and demand—the interest of consumers in purchasing bison meat—that will restore the bison herds to the plains.


Continue To Page 3: Bison Vs. Buffalo & Cattle ~The Final Tally

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