Like the American Indian, the Buffalo -- known to scientists as Bison -- came to North America long ago from Asia, crossing a land bridge that once connected Siberia to Alaska.
The early bison were enormous lumbering animals, weighing up to 5,000 pounds, and sporting horns that spanned more than six feet across. When they reached the rolling grass plains of the central U.S., stretching from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains, they had found a home large enough to sustain their huge herds, with forage to spare. Having no natural predators, their breeding unchecked, they reached an estimated 35 million animals that stretched for miles across the immense prairie. Grand Canyon Western Ranch - February 2010. To the American Indian, however, the buffalo were manna from heaven. On swift ponies, they circled individual herds, giving archers a better shot at the tightly packed animals. They also stampeded bison over cliffs. These so-called "buffalo jumps," provided tribes with critical supplies of meat and warm hides that enabled them to survive the prairie's harsh winters. But flesh and skin weren't the only prizes: tribes learned to use virtually every part of the animal, from horns to tail hairs."The Indian was frugal in the midst of plenty," said a member of the Lakota tribe. "He slaughtered only what he could eat, and used the rest -- skin, hair, bones and horns -- to make warm robes, utensils, and decorative medallions." Unfortunately, the white man who arrived later didn't share the same respect for the buffalo.
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To settlers traveling across America's Great Plains in the early 1800s, the prairie wind was a constant companion, gently rippling the vast sea of grass that carpeted the center of North America. Sometimes, however, the rumbling of thunder could be heard in the distance, though no storm clouds could be seen. Then the ground would begin to shake, and suddenly the astonished newcomers would be surrounded by a thundering herd of hulking animals that stretched further than the eye could see. The enormous welcoming committee made it clear the settlers had arrived in the Buffalo Nation -- a land where the American Bison held sway. Photograph, mid-1870s, of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. The Buffalo Are Back at Grand Canyon Western Ranch! However, within 30 years, 1865-1895, the majestic buffalo had nearly all vanished, slaughtered by the white man on his relentless push westward. A darker motive lay behind their extermination: "Kill the buffalo," Gen. Phil Sheridan noted, "and you rob the Indian of his primary means of survival. Massacre as many of them as we can," he said, "and we'll starve the Indians back onto the reservations." By the end of the century, the U.S. cavalry, hunters, trappers and traders who sold meat and hides to the eastern market, and "sportsmen" who shot buffalo from trains for the sheer fun of it, had nearly wiped out 35,000,000 buffalo. There were even buffalo killing contests. In one, a Kansan set a record by killing 120 bison in just 40 minutes. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, hired to slaughter the animals, killed more than 4,000 buffalo in just two years.
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Stripped of their hides, the carcasses were left to rot on the plains, with only the buzzards for company. Down to the last few hundred, the breed was finally saved when the federal government put an end to the slaughter, if not the dark blot on America's history. Stack of buffalo hides at Dodge City, Kansas (circa 1870s). Once on the verge of extinction, the icon of the Old West has been gradually making a comeback: America's largest wild Bison herd, protected in Montana's Yellowstone National Park, began to thrive and reproduce in the 1900's. Native American leaders exulted: "Buffalo have to be there for our culture to exist," said a prominent spokesman for the Sioux and Cheyenne nations. "As we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health." With an eye to their historic, as well as commercial value, ranchers in Montana, Idaho and South Dakota began raising buffalo; and further protection was afforded in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The preservation of these noble animals is ongoing: in northern Arizona, Nigel Turner has introduced wild Bison on his private guest ranch, located at the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. A special treat for our guests is our one-of-a-kind Buffalo Safari Tour through areas where these magnificent animals can be seen in the wild. The buffalo are absolutely unique to America, and our guests are encouraged to photograph them against the backdrop of Grand Canyon Ranch. Think of being on safari in Africa, but just a stone's throw from Vegas. Fascinating facts about the Buffalo Buffalo, or Bison, are the largest living members of the cow family. Adults range from 1,400 to 2,500 pounds for males, and 750 to 1,600 pounds for females.
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Male buffalo have massive front quarters, with a large hump above the shoulders; these are covered with woolly hair up to 1.5 inches long that also covers the head and forelegs. This hair will turn tan with age, and is two to five times thicker than hind-quarter hair. The head has a broad, triangular shape with a beard. Calves are reddish-tan at birth, but their color changes to brown or black at three months. The hump and horns begin developing around six month's age. Both males and females have horns. Male horns can reach 20" long, while female horns are smaller. Their smell and hearing is acute, but their eyesight is poor. Adult buffalo can sprint at 35 mph for up to 1/4 mile, and can run longer distances at slower speeds, putting the ponies of Indian buffalo hunters to a test of stamina. Buffalo are also capable of jumping over 6 foot high fences without touching the fence. While buffalo may live as long as 28-plus years, their lifespan usually runs from 12 to 15 years. They are gregarious animals and congregate in large herd groups. However, the groups are unstable, and their composition changes constantly. Herd groups are dominated by a matriarchal female, except during breeding. Adult buffalo are voracious eaters, consuming approximately 35 pounds of food per day. Because of variations in forage and its availability, they will shift terrain toward the most abundant food source, eating wild grasses, herbs, and other plants they have developed a preference for. Grand Canyon Western Ranch - February 2010. Breeding occurs from mid-July to early September. Males are polygamous, but they do not form harems. During rutting, males may lose up 300 pounds. Most breeding is done by mature males five to eight years old. Gestation ranges from 270 to 285 days. Calves are born in the spring from late April through May; and "twins" have not been documented. Nursing occurs primarily during daylight hours, with each nursing bout lasting up to 20 minutes.