American Bison

American Bison are an iconic American species, with a long and somewhat tragic history. These animals have lived in North America since prehistoric times. Despite this, over-hunting and habitat loss nearly resulted in their extinction in the late 1800s. Their numbers have increased since then, however, their bloodlines are not nearly as pure as they once were. Illness, hunting and other factors mean that the population is still considered near threatened. In 2016, President Obama worked with the American Bison Coalition to make bison the national mammal of the United States, cementing their legacy for years to come.


Bison are the heaviest land animal in North America. Their large, broad shoulders and head are covered in long shaggy hair that provides insulation, especially during cold winters. Their tails are short, ending in tufts of hair, and their coat color can vary depending on the season, going from light brown in the summer to nearly black in the winter. Calves already weigh 30-70 pounds at birth and are normally an orangey-red, earning them the nickname “red dogs.”


American bison originally roamed from Alaska all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, meaning they needed to be able to adapt to the broad weather conditions and landscapes of North America. As a result, these animals are broad grazers, able to eat grasses, weeds, shrubs and leafy plants wherever they find them. Despite their bulky appearance, they are quite agile, able to run up to 35 mph. Bison are also great swimmers, allowing them to cross rivers and streams when necessary and enjoy cool water or warm thermal pools depending on the temperature.

Buffalo or Bison?

Although they are officially called the American bison, there is a good chance you’ve referred to these animals as “buffalo.” The term buffalo most likely comes from early French explorers, and while they were right that buffalo and bison come from the same family, true buffalo are native to Africa and Asia. Bison are only found in North America and Europe. 

Where are they?

Just before you turn right to head into Fossil Rim, you can spot these animals in the pasture next to our admissions office. 

Feel free to stop before you head into Fossil Rim to watch the bison, or you can walk over to the pasture from the Front Gate parking lot. In hot weather, they may be in their pond.

Quick Facts

Scientific Name

Bison bison

Species Survival Plan



Open grasslands and prairies


Grasses and weeds

Originally Native To

North America


Distinct hump over shoulders; short, curved and black horns


6 ft. tall, 2000 lbs.


Wild 15 - 20 years
Captivity 30 years

Social Behavior

Mixed-sex herds