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Bison remain historical icons of American wildlife

May 14, 2011

BISON are one of the iconic symbols of America. These huge shaggy haired beasts of the prairies represent a time long ago when the new lands of America were being 'discovered' by the likes of Lewis and Clark in 1803. Of course the bison did not need discovering by the native peoples of North America. For umpteen eons, the bison was food, its hides were shelter and clothing and its bones could be made into tools. The bison also represented a spiritual connection of people to the land. Wherever the bison went, so to did many native people.

Bison as a species are survivors. Estimates of the total numbers of bison throughout its vast range are pegged at anywhere from 50 to 70 million animals. This was way before vast changes to the American landscape due to settlement and over hunting that caused bison numbers to plummet. Mankind did stop the bison's road to extinction, but just barely. Only five herd sources for a total of 77 animals is what kept the bison from total eradication.

There are now good herds of free ranging bison in places like Arizona, Utah, Canada and other sites. Private farms and ranches exist in almost every state including Alaska and Hawaii. Today's numbers range around 200,000. In Iowa, just about every Iowa county has a bison farm or two. At Green Castle, a very small herd of one bull, two cows and the calves of last year and this year are available for public viewing and education.

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Up close and personal is what one may get in captive situations with bison. In this case, the bull bison at the Green Castle Recreation Area eagerly eats new hay. For truly wild bison in free range conditions, up close and personal can be downright dangerous. These placid appearing animals are smart and fast. They need their space and a healthy dose of respect. Tourists every year in places like Yellowstone National Park are tempted to get too close (in order to have a buddy take a picture) with the end result being a serious injury when the bison rips its horn into the intruder.

Archaeological evidence shows the bison reached North America from Eurasia about 300,000 years ago via the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. The oldest bison remains in the lower 48 states are in the order of 100,000 years old. Taxonomists and other scientists have concluded that our present day living bison had two ancestors, the species called Bison latifrons and Bison antiquus. They were much larger animals, a reflection of the times when colder climates prevailed. Large body size is one of nature's mechanisms to help retain body heat.

Bison latifrons was at least 40 percent larger than today's bison. Its horns grew straight out to a width of about six feet. These horns did not curve up as we may commonly see in modern bison. The dorsal spines of its vertebrae were taller which were needed to attach muscle tissue to help hold up its big head. Iowa's state historical museum in Des Moines has fossilized bison skulls of this extinct animal on display. It is worth the trip to learn about what Iowa's land and landscapes were like long ago.

We will not ever witness again the scenes that Lewis and Clark noted in their diaries during the Voyage of Discovery. For instance ... on April 17, 1805, "We saw immense quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up river; consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk, and Antelopes with some deer and wolves." April 22, 1805, "I assended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightful view of the country, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immense herds of Buffaloe, Elk, Deer and Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture."

Bison skulls are a portion of the natural history display at the Conservation Center at the GrimesFarm. One of the bison skulls came from the Minerva Creek area of Marshall County, a discovery by a local person who was investigating the exposed sediments of sand and gravel. Buried for centuries, the slow erosion of the creek bank revealed the skull to air and light. Prairie states like Iowa had its share of the shaggy beast we call bison. It is good that management of wild lands and wild animals can be part of our modern day landscape. It is also good that history can preserve these living icons of yesteryear.


Sign ups for Alliant Energy Trees is going well. However, the selection of trees is getting limited at this stage of the game. At the time this article was written, Hornbeam, Sugar Maples and Norway Spruces were the species left to pick from. Information about this opportunity to purchase trees can be found on the Alliant Energy website. You must send in an order form to reserve your species of choice and be more likely to receive a tree. Order forms are processed on a first come first serve basis. If you have any questions about the ordering process contact Marshall County Conservation at 641-752-5490.


Soon Marshall County Conservation will be sending out their quarterly newsletter. This is a great way to stay up to date on events and projects taking place in the area county parks. If you are interested in receiving this newsletter contact Emily at MCCB at 641-752-5490. You can also e-mail her if you choose to receive the newsletter via e-mail at


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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