Bison or Buffalo?


When it first sunk in that we were going to be spending several days in Yellowstone National Park we all started thinking about seeing bison. While staying near Glacier National Park we had studied a bit about the bison and their importance to the Blackfeet and many other groups of Native Americans living on the plains. We had also studied the very sad history of the near extinction of the bison at the end of the 1800’s. So, we were very excited to have the opportunity to view the Yellowstone bison herds. The bison in Yellowstone National Park have continuously lived here since pre-historic times and some members of the population are descended from the last wild bison that survived the mass extermination of the 1800’s.


Of course our excitement level went through the roof on our very first day in the park when we had the pleasure of watching a large group from the Northern Herd. As we sat in the car with the windows down the kids were in awe of their size, body shape, and the wonderful sounds that they make. Each day as we explore the park we have had multiple opportunities to view bison. Sometimes it is just a lone male like the one standing on Geyser Hill overlooking Old Faithful. Other times we have to stop the car abruptly as a large herd move along the road and we get a very up close look at these magnificent creatures.


However, as the number of bison that we see mounts we still can’t quite come to an agreement as a family on what we should be calling them. Are they bison or buffalo? You often hear the terms used interchangeably but we wanted to know for sure. So, after a bit of Internet research it turns out the the correct species name is Bison bison. However, the term buffalo was adopted after French explorers started referring to them as “les boeufs” (meaning oxen). This term gained in popularity so now today even though they are scientifically speaking bison, they are commonly referred to as American buffalo.


A bison warming up near Old Faithful.

Whatever you want to call them they are an extremely impressive creature to watch. The other day we were lucky enough to see one run, and it was so graceful and swift that you can certainly understand why the park rangers remind you to stay at least 25 yards away. The past and future of the bison is also very interesting with a slew of information out there about their importance to plains tribes, near extinction, and current day population numbers and the management of the herds in Yellowstone. As we study this topic as a family we feel so fortunate that we have had the opportunity share the park with the bison over the last week.


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