Fossils bison have been found dating back to about 12 million years ago. At least three species once existed in North America. The Giant Bison, even much larger that the American Bison, became extinct about 10,000 years ago. The American Bison consists of two easily recognized forms or subspecies, the Plains Bison and the Wood Bison.
The Plains Bison, which once numbered an estimated 60 million individuals, also almost went extinct by the 1880s. Once providing almost all the needs of the Plains Indians -- food, clothing, tools and shelter, they were deliberately, wantonly slaughtered. Were it not for a few people, all would almost certainly be gone today. In 1873, four young calves, two male, two female, were captured along the Milk River in the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana, just south of the 49th parallel, by Walking Coyote, a First Nation Pend D'Orielle. He took them to the Mission of St. Ignatius on the Flathead Reservation in west Montana the next spring. Their numbers increased and in 1884 Don Michel Pablo and C. A. Allard purchased ten of them. They bought a further small herd of 26 at Omaha in 1893. After unsuccessfully trying to sell the descendants to the American Government, Canada purchased 475 individuals (Pablo's share) in 1906 for $200,000, eventually adding more for a total of 709. These were first kept at Elk Island Nat. Park, then moved to the later defunct Wainwright Buffalo Park. Their numbers soon increased to over 10,000. To avoid overcrowding, between 1925-1928, some 6,673 Plains Bison were unwisely transported north to the new (1922) Wood Buffalo Nat. Park, dedicated to protect the few remaining Wood Bison. As might have been expected, the two forms interbred. (There may not be any true Wood Bison left in Wood Buffalo Nat. Park). In addition, the Wainwright herd, exposed to domestic cattle, had become infected with Brucellosis and Bovine Tuberculosis, which they took north with them. These diseases have been eliminated from domestic cattle but a reservoir now exists in that wild northern Bison herd.
The bison that Canada acquired is the nucleus of all the present herds in parks and private holdings in Canada. In Alberta, besides the free-roaming animals in Wood Buffalo Nat. Park, a small herd is maintained in Elk Island Nat. Park (both Plains and Wood, now wisely separated), and in Waterton Nat. Park. The Banff Nat. Park herd was removed in the late 1990s. A herd of 400 are maintained by the Tsuu Tina Nation, our Weaselhead neighbours. Many additional small private herds exist throughout the province.
There have been calls to establish a free-roaming Plains Bison herd on some of the large crownland holdings in southeastern Alberta and in Writing-on-Stone Prov. Park, just across the border from the original source in the Sweetgrass Hills, similar to the release at Oldman-on-his-Back Preserve in nearby southern Saskatchewan. Bison are much more efficient at maintaining the true prairie vegetation -- and in converting it into protein than are domestic cattle.
The gregarius American Bison once roamed all the grassland regions of central North America, from east of the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains and from south of the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Buffalo, New York was named for their presence. They were present in all of Alberta with the possible exception of northern Jasper Nat. Park and adjoining area. In Alberta, besides the prairie, they were also found in the aspen parkland and boreal forest. They also used the foothills and some climbed to over 9000 feet to the alpine tundra, as evidenced by bones recently found there. Perhaps they were there just for the view! The American Bison is the largest native land mammal in North America today. The males, with their massive head, standing up to 1.8 m (6 ft.) high at the shoulder and weighing up to 1090 km (2400 lbs), are most impressive creatures, indeed.
Bison live to a maximum of 40 years. They normally breed in late summer (Aug.) and after a gestation of nine to ten months, give birth to a single, 18 kg (40 lb.), orange-brown calf in May. Within three hours it can run around and buck, and follows its mother when she moves off. It begins nibbling grass at one week but continues to nurse until about seven months of age. They are reproductively mature at 2-3 years. Young females breed then, but males are prevented from doing so until about 7 or older because of competition from the larger, mature males. Cows produce only two calves over a three year period.
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Where to find American Bisons in Alberta
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