American Bison: Are Buffalo Extinct?

Written by Kristen Holder
Published: June 19, 2022
Image Credit Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock.com
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Less than 11,000 years ago, the last ice age ended. American bison roamed the Great Plains of the United States all of those years, but they were slaughtered en masse in the 19th century. Did the American buffalo survive this? Are buffalo extinct? First, we will clarify a common confusion.

Are Buffalo the Same as Bison?

No, buffalo and bison are not the same. However, in North America, the terms buffalo and bison are used interchangeably to describe the American bison.

Actual buffalo only live in Asia and Africa. They’re called the water buffalo and the cape buffalo. Any buffalo that exists in Europe or America are bison. American settlers are most likely to blame for the word confusion that exists in North America today.

Are Buffalo Extinct?

Bearded Animals
American bison are not extinct.

iStock.com/Jillian Cooper

No, buffalo are not extinct. However, buffalo almost went extinct. The American bison is currently listed as Near Threatened because its population has rebounded enough to bring it back from the brink of extinction.

There are around 15,000 completely wild and free American buffalo in the United States, with 5,000 of them living in Yellowstone National Park. Before Europeans began hunting them, their numbers hovered around 30-60 million. There are also around 530,000 buffalo on protected land in private herds. 

Despite conservation efforts, less than 1% of the population of American bison has been restored to the wild. 95% of the American buffalo alive belong to private land owners and breeders.

Yellowstone National Park is the only place where buffalo have lived continuously since prehistory. Despite this, there are now American bison in all 50 states. They’re scattered across indigenous lands, refuges, private herds, and national parks.

American bison are the biggest mammals in North America. They weigh up to a few tons and stand up to 6 feet tall while being able to hustle around at 35 mph. They roam around eating grass and other leaves for up to 11 hours per day.

Why Did the American Buffalo Almost Go Extinct?

animals unique to North America:American bison
Buffalo were mistreated so greatly that there were train expeditions just to decimate the herds.

Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock.com

American bison almost went extinct because their hides and tongues were valuable. They were also slaughtered to help subdue native tribes by eliminating their food source.

Hunters almost killed all of the buffalo in America. Without the existence of the newly functioning railroads, this mass slaughter wouldn’t have been able to occur.

By 1884, railroads were well established and effectively transported goods in America. One of the products that found itself in high demand was buffalo hides. Hunters began meeting this demand, and about 5 million buffalo were killed by 1887.

Buffalo were mistreated so greatly that there were train expeditions just to decimate the herds. The trains would find a herd near the tracks, slow to their speed, and allow the passengers on board to hunt any buffalo they could kill for sport.

Activities like this reduced the herd to less than 600 individuals before attitudes toward the American bison began to change. The remaining buffalo were in Yellowstone National Park, so it was declared that no animal could be killed within the park. This saved the herd.

Will American Buffalo Go Extinct?

The American bison will probably not go extinct. That’s because conservation efforts have created stable populations.

There still are concerns, however, because the herds are no longer free-ranging in the vast territories they enjoyed historically. That’s because all of their range has been developed.

This causes the segregation of populations from others which limits genetic diversity and encourages inbreeding. Too much inbreeding compromises the health of a herd.

Are Buffalo Considered Cattle?

Beefalo with fall foliage backdrop
Beefalos result from the crossbreeding of cattle and buffalo.

Mark Spearman / flickr – License

No, buffalo are not cattle. Cattle are cows. Buffalo are cousins to cattle, however.

Cattle and buffalo can be crossbred, though it is considered bad form today. These animals are called beefalo. To save the herd after the great slaughter, some ranchers bred the buffalo they were able to capture from the tiny herd and bred them with cattle to keep them going.

Only females were fertile, the practice was abandoned, and today, the remnants of cattle genetics left in herds are being bred out. The only pure buffalo with no trace of cow genetics that are wild are in Yellowstone National Park.

Indigenous Americans and Buffalo

Native Americans never domesticated wild buffalo. For thousands of years, the buffalo made such good trails between different spots in the landscape on their range that they were used as human paths. These trails were adopted by Europeans that came to the continent.

Not only were tourists on the railways and hunters killing buffalo, but the US government was also systematically exterminating the herd so they could win the Indian Wars against the Plains Indians. It worked, and most indigenous Americans were sequestered on reservations.

Buffalo were an integral food source to Plains Indian tribes as well as a spiritual powerhouse in many tribal religions across their range. When American bison began being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands per year, native tribes were helpless in defending the herd.

What is a White Buffalo?

White buffalo are extremely rare.

iStock.com/m-kojot

White buffalo are rare white-haired calves that occur naturally for a variety of reasons. They are spiritually significant to various indigenous tribes and occur only once in every 10 million calves. Their rarity makes them special.

White Buffalo Calf Woman is a sacred prophet for the Lakota and other tribes. It’s believed she’ll return to earth as a white buffalo and enact change. Some tribes interpret climate change as the event marking her return.

White buffalo are currently represented on the Wyoming state flag.

Do People Still Eat Buffalo?

Yes, people still eat buffalo. It is raised on private land as a meat animal, and regulated wild hunting is allowed in Alaska, Utah, Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming.

Its lean red meat has a deeper taste to it than cow meat. This deeper taste is caused by the high iron content. Some people even eat raw buffalo liver for its health benefits, which include all 9 necessary amino acids needed in a human diet.

There is 40% more protein and fewer calories in a serving of bison as compared to beef. It’s prepared the way beef is and is easily substituted for beef in recipes.

animals unique to North America:American bison
The American Bison is the largest land mammal in North America!
Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock.com
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About the Author

I'm an animal lover with an eye for detail and a love of words. I enjoy delving into in-depth research on a variety of topics and AZ Animals is the perfect outlet.

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