Buffalo or Bison: what is in a name?

(adapted from The American Buffalo in Transition, by J. Albert Rorabacher.)

Scientifically: the term “buffalo” is incorrect for the North American species. Its proper Latin name is “Bison bison.” However, common usage has made the term “buffalo” an acceptable synonym for the American bison.

Bison Family Drawing

History of the name: In the seventeenth century, French explorers in North America referred to the new species they encountered as “les boeufs,” meaning oxen or beeves. The English, arriving later, eventually modified the pronunciation to “la buff.” The name became more distorted as time passed, becoming “buffle,” “buffler,” “buffillo,” and, eventually, “buffalo.”

Wild Buffalo vs. Domesticated “Beef-alo”

Buffalo are an important part of native wildlife on the North American Continent. They once roamed from Appalachia to Alaska, and Florida to Canada. Sadly, today they are only found in small herds that are highly managed.

Most of the buffalo that people see today live on ranches and are raised as livestock. We refer to these as "domestic buffalo” because they are managed with animal husbandry techniques and carry cattle genes from a time when cattle were bred with buffalo in an attempt to make a heartier cow. This resulted in the contamination of previously pure buffalo bloodlines, meaning most buffalo today — except for a very few publicly-managed herds — are not genetically pure; they are hybrids from a genetic perspective. These new animals often referred to as “beefalo,” are also distinctly different from buffalo because they are not allowed to exhibit any of their original wild behavior; they are kept on private ranches, primarily raised for sale as “wild buffalo meat.”

A study led by Texas A&M geneticist Dr. James Derr (referenced in this New York Times article, PDF), found that more than 90 percent of private bison, and many animals in publicly-managed herds, are actually bison-cattle hybrids. Dr. Derr also estimated the pool of pure bison available for preserving this species was fewer than 15,000 animals [in 2002]. The New York Times article also references another researcher with whom BFC strongly agrees:

But as a rule, even if they are not hybrids, ranched bison should not be mixed with their wild cousins, said Dr. Dale F. Lott,” an emeritus professor of conservation biology at the University of California at Davis and author of American Bison: A Natural History, published by the University of California Press [2002] “Ranched bison,” he cautioned, “are being turned into domestic animals. Their behavior, appearance, and genetic makeup differ from wild bison.

The National Bison Association claims that the buffalo ranching industry will help repopulate North America with buffalo. However, the buffalo to which the ranching industry refers are not (and will never be) true buffalo for two reasons. First, because they carry domestic cattle genes as discussed above, but also because for their whole lives—and in many cases for generations already—they have been forced to exist as a domesticated species despite having some “wild genes.”

Buffalo vs Cow

Today, ranched bison and their producers are found in each of the United States and Canadian provinces. There are even herds on Long Island, NY; Kodiak Island, AK; and the islands of Hawaii. The average herd size is less than 100 animals while the largest herds number over 3,000.

Altogether, there are approximately 350,000 animals in North America with some amount of bison DNA. Roughly 200,000 are located on private ranches, and the remaining 150,000 or so are managed on public lands. Yellowstone, however, is home to the only genetically intact, truly wild buffalo. These are the ancestors of the great herds that once roamed North America.

The truth is: Yellowstone National Park harbors America's last wild buffalo. Our ongoing endangered species petition will use science to prove this claim. With your help, we will obtain lasting protection for buffalo, as well as the ecosystem upon with they depend for their survival.

Buffalo Habitat

Like all wildlife species: no wild habitat = no wild buffalo.

Securing room to roam for the buffalo far into the future is a core objective of BFC, and something we work hard to accomplish. On our habitat page we offer you a variety of maps and graphics to help you understand buffalo history, the native range of bison, current Yellowstone bison geography, buffalo migration, and how conservation of the land supports buffalo protection.

America and the buffalo


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