Get To Know Canada’s Buffalo

Image of Jaime Clifton

Jaime Clifton, Guest Blogger

This blog was written by guest blogger Jaime Clifton-Ross.

October’s calendar photo of the month features a majestic female Buffalo standing on a sloped mountainside in the pouring rain. Captured in Waterton National Park in Alberta, this breathtaking photograph was taken by Paule Hjertaas.

A little bit about the Buffalo

Buffalo are mammals from the cattle family. Commonly referred to as Bison, this species is classified as the American Bison (Bison bison). It is often split into two subspecies, the Wood Bison and Plains Bison, but some suggest there is no taxonomic evidence to support this. There are approximately 2,200 Plains Bison and 10,000 Woods Bison in Canada, including free-range and captive herds.

Where do they live?

American Bison are often found in open grasslands stretching across prairies and plains or in river valleys. In Canada, they can be found in parts of British Columbia, Yukon,  Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

What do they look like?

Bison are the largest of all mammals living in Canada and have a large shoulder hump covered in shaggy brown fur, a long brown mane on their head, neck, and shoulders, and short brown fur along their backside. They also have short, curved horns and hooves. Wood Bison males are larger than females, measuring from 1.67 to 1.82m in height and weighing between 350 to 1000 kg! Whereas the Plains Bison male has a height of 1.7 to 2.8 m, and weighs around 600 to 860 kg.

What is their nature?

Image of an American Bison

American Bison (Bison bison)

By nature, Bison are social beings and often travel in large groups of 15-20 animals. During the migration season, many join other groups forming large herds. They are most active at night or at dusk. Females and males generally live separately in small groups and come together during the summer mating season.

What efforts have been made in Canada to conserve Bison?

Only two centuries ago, up to 30-60 million Buffalo roamed freely across North America from Mexico to northern Canada. By the late 19th century settlers drove them to the brink of extinction as a result of over-hunting and mass slaughters.

To help recover the Bison population, a law to protect the Wood Bison from hunting was first introduced in 1877. As well, the Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest national park, was established in 1922 to protect remaining the herds. It is home to one of the largest free-roaming and self-regulating Bison herds in the world!

Both Wood and Plains Bison subspecies were assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The Wood Bison is listed as Special Concern under COSEWIC and listed as Schedule 1, Threatened by SARA. The Plains Bison is listed as Threatened under COSEWIC.

To learn more about Buffalo revival efforts in the 19th century, check out The Great Buffalo Saga. This 1985 film, created by Michael McKennirey, is featured on the National Film Board website.

More facts about the Bison:

  • They are herbivores that live off grasses, forbs, and sedges.
  • Despite their size, they can run up to 56 km per hour and can jump as high as 6 feet vertically!
  • They are exceptional swimmers.
  • As the official provincial animal, they adorn the Manitoba flag.
  • They can live for over 20 years.
  • Snow can settle on their backs without melting because their thick shaggy coats are so well insulated.

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