6 Fascinating Facts About Bison

A young bull bison pauses from his nonstop feeding schedule to soak in the fleeting sunlight. Travis Morhardt/ Flickr/MNN Photo Pool

The bison is an iconic animal of the American plains, and yet most of us would be surprised at finding out these few basic facts about the species.

1. Bison may look like lumbering lumps but they're actually quite fast and agile. They can run an impressive 40 miles per hour and jump as high as 6 vertical feet! Because tourists underestimate the speed and overestimate the docility of bison, they've been responsible for injuring more people in Yellowstone than any other animal species in the park.

2. A bison's coat is so thick and insulating that snow can cover it without melting.

3. Bison played a huge role in the plains ecosystem. They grazed native grasses, and in doing so their hooves turned up the soil and their droppings fertilized it. Prairie dogs preferred to live in areas grazed by bison so they could keep a better watch out for predators over the shorter grasses. Meanwhile, bison was a major food source for both humans and wolves, and their carcasses were feasts for scavenger species. Without bison, the plains would never have been the fertile, unique ecosystem it was before farming arrived.

4. European settlers really did a number on the bison and managed to wipe them out until only a few hundred survived. There is only one location in the entire continent where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times, and that is Yellowstone National Park.

5. Only around 500,000 bison exist today, a fraction of the some 30 million that once roamed the plains before Europeans arrived. The vast majority are raised by ranchers for their meat and hides. Only around 30,000 bison graze on parks and public lands and only around 15,000 of them are considered wild, roaming free and unfenced. Their range has changed and so has their genetic make-up. Most bison today aren't exactly pure bison. Texas A&M; professor of veterinary pathobiology Dr. James Derr has spent decades doing genetic analysis of bison and figures that only about 8,000 individuals, or about 1.6 percent of the total population of the species, is not hybridized to some degree with cattle. The species is considered "ecologically extinct."
So the notion of bison roaming free across the plains is, and probably always will be, only a memory found in history books.