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Bison (American)

Estimated reading time: 6 min

It must have been something to see. The mountain men who explored the interior of America saw it. The Native American Indian tribes counted on it. Imagine herds of the largest land animal in North America stretching from horizon to horizon. The noise of the gigantic herds could be heard miles before the animals could be seen.

The American bison (commonly, but incorrectly called the buffalo) was estimated to number 50-75 million animals when the first Europeans arrived on American shores. The entire culture, spirituality, and survival of the western Indian tribes were built around the buffalo … or, “tatanka” as it was called by the Sioux.

Bison Facts

First, let’s get the name straight. The American bison is commonly called the buffalo, or American buffalo. There are only two true buffalo species in the world, the Asiatic water buffalo and the African buffalo. So to avoid confusion, especially in hunting circles because the true buffalo species are also highly prized game animals, it’s best to stick to the correct name for the North American species – the bison. And since there’s also a close relative called the European Bison or wisent (with tiny, controlled populations that are not hunted today), “American bison” gets the message across most accurately.

When it comes to North American big game animals, bison are the biggest on land and second only in size to the walrus which is classified as a marine mammal. A mature bison bull is a sight to behold weighing in at as much as 3,000 pounds. It stands more than six feet high at the top of its shoulder hump. Bulls are somewhat larger than cows.

Both bulls and cows have a large hump on the shoulders. Their heads are massive, with an odd carriage well below the topline of their backs. From the hump the backline slopes dramatically to the rear. The head, neck, and approximately front half of the body are covered with thick, almost wooly, hair adding to the apparent mass of the front of the bison’s body and making the rear quarters seem diminutively out of proportion. Bulls and cows have short horns that curve out and up from the sides of the head. Bulls’ horns grow larger than cows both in length and overall mass. A mature bull of 12 or 15 years old, in prime condition, is a truly impressive beast for its size and unique confirmation.

There are two subspecies of American bison – the plains bison and the wood bison. They are identical animals except that the plains bison is usually smaller and lighter colored (almost appearing golden or yellow by late summer each year), and the wood bison is on the larger end of the range and its coat is very dark, ranging almost to black.

Bison are grass eaters, and as you can imagine it takes a great deal of feed to maintain an animal of that size. This continual search for new grazing was what drove the unceasing movement of the huge herds of bison native to North America. They needed to constantly seek out fresh grass for the herd.

Bison rut is in late summer, with calves born in early summer the following year. Calves stay with the cow, nursing, until the next calf is born.

Historically, the range of the American bison is believed to have been from Alaska to Florida and from present day Maine into northern and central regions of Mexico. This estimate is largely based on fossil records dating back millions of years. In recorded history, the bison was known mostly as an animal of the west. Today, the populations, though rebounding with careful conservation practices, are restricted primarily to parks, refuges, and private ranches.

Hunting Bison

There are basically two ways to hunt American bison today. You can hunt them on a privately owned game ranch, or you can seek out one of the very few opportunities to participate in hunts established to manage wild, free roaming herds that range across public and private lands.

Based on their fair chase requirement of hunting free-ranging animals, the Boone & Crockett Club will only fully recognize bison taken today from hunts in certain areas of Alaska and Canada that have truly, free-roaming herds of wood bison. However, they will publish in the record books qualifying animals taken in the Lower 48 states only if they were taken in a state that recognizes a particular bison herd as wild and free-ranging, and which requires a hunting license and/or big game tag to hunt the animals. Any situation or location in which bison are semi-domesticated and regulated as livestock (i.e. game ranches) will not qualify for B&C.

Safari Club International’s record keeping qualifications are more liberal as to the location and situation in which a bison is taken and includes specific categories for each.

Ranch hunts are available in many states, particularly west of the Mississippi. They range from accommodations in 5-star type lodges and transport in shiny 4WD vehicles to bunking with the ranch owner and family, and taking the feed truck out to choose from animals selected for removal from the herd. Such hunts are widely available and usually don’t even require a state-issued hunting license. Regulations and practices on these hunts are similar to hunting high-fence exotics in places like Texas

Opportunities to hunt free ranging bison are constantly in flux as many of the seasons are reviewed annually based on the management requirements for particular herds. Tags are nearly always issued through a lottery system with huge numbers of entrants for a few tags, through auctions to raise conservation funds, or through outfitter allocations. Places with recurring opportunities to hunt free range bison appear to include Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and South Dakota. However, remember that only Alaska and Canada hunts currently qualify for full B&C entry and potential recognition.

Outfitters for both ranch style and free-ranging hunts stand ready with options for you to hunt bison with modern firearms, handguns, muzzleloaders and even archery gear. A bison is a massively built, tenacious animal, but is not particularly difficult to hunt in any setting. It’s usually a spot-and-stalk style of hunt in which you’ll use terrain, cover and wind in your favor to move within range of the selected animal. Because adult bison have virtually no predators, and they can defend the young from most attacks, they do not tend to spook easily. In most situations, they will stand their ground rather than run away. Even if they become aware of your presence, they will usually wander or trot away only for a short distance.

Good binoculars and spotting scope will enhance both your success and enjoyment of a bison hunt, and allow you to judge animals accurately. Many permits are issued to take animals of specific sex and age in coordination with the management goals for the herd or the animal you’ve paid for on a game ranch.

The rifles of the “buffalo hunters” of the 19th century were big guns … mostly 45-caliber and up. Many who hunt bison today elect to do so with period firearms, gear, and even clothing. It’s part of the romance and nostalgia of hunting these animals. Whatever you choose to use, shot placement is critical for a quick, one-shot kill. Practice with your gun or bow so you can make a precise shot, every time from field shooting positions and improvised rests.

However, the opening of the West, particularly by railroads, led to uncontrolled market hunting of the bison. In the course of less than 20 years, bison herds were depleted from millions of animals to less than 1,000 – total! The animals were hunted for meat and hides. Because the bison’s importance to the tribes was recognized, the herds were also systematically wiped out to gain “control” over the Indians. And the final nail in the bison’s coffin was the introduction of domestic cattle to their range which brought with it bovine diseases to which the bison had no natural immunity.

Yet, beginning with less than 1,000 animals, tight regulations and conservation efforts – both governmental and private – managed to save the bison. Today, population estimates range as high as 100,000 wild bison across the United States and Canada. As a result, there are opportunities for hunting these incredible animals. The most common are on privately controlled game ranches, however, there are a few precious places to hunt free-roaming fair chase bison, too. Either kind of hunt requires the services of an experienced, trustworthy bison hunting outfitter, and is the place to begin your search.

Bison Hunting Outfitters

You need an outfitter to hunt American Bison today. Obviously, you’ll be working with an outfitter for any private game ranch hunt. It’s how you will get access to the property and the animals.

Even if you could acquire the tags for a free-ranging bison hunt on your own, executing a hunt of this magnitude is all but impossible for anyone except an experienced, highly-rated outfitter. The outfitter must stay aware of license/hunt opportunities and keep you apprised of the highest percentage ways to go about getting these licenses. And they will know how to go about hunting these animals as well as accurately assessing the animals for which your tag is valid.

Because of the few tags, the small number of animals, and their nomadic habits within the range, the Arizona Game Department considers the bison hunt to be the most difficult the state has to offer. In their literature, they encourage hunters to make plans to hunt the entire season if they hope to be successful. Very few of us, outside of professional outfitters, can devote that amount of time to a hunt.

Finally, when you and your outfitter navigate all of the logistics, you make a successful hunt and stalk, your shot is true, and there’s a one ton animal lying on the ground in front of you, you will be very, very happy to have the assistance of an outfitter and guides who are experienced in dealing with the butchering, meat, and trophies of the animal.

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