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American Icon
The plains bison also roamed early New Mexico

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About the cover

Southwest Wildlife

American Icon

The plains bison, famed in the Great Plains, also roamed early New Mexico.

by Jay W. Sharp


The plains bison, the wildlife symbol of the Great Plains of the United States, also ranged, perhaps surprisingly, across much of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, grazing the arid grasslands. Indeed, plains bison bones lie scattered across a prehistoric kill site in the biologically diverse San Simon Drainage, in the Chihuahuan Desert near the New Mexico/Arizona border, between the Peloncillo and Chiricahua mountain ranges. (My wife, Martha, working as a volunteer for the Bureau of Land Management, visited the kill site some years ago with a team of archeologists.)

bison 1
Plains bison herd, on Ted Turner’s Armendaris Ranch.
(Photo by David Noble)

Plains bison, archeological evidence suggests, served as an important food source for the late-prehistoric Casas Grandes culture, centered at Paquime, in the Chihuahuan Desert some 100 miles south of Columbus, NM. The plains bison, some specialists think, may have played a key role in maintaining the health of the arid grassland ecosystems of the deserts.

In his 1610 History of New Mexico, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá wrote of the bison here:

"In size they are like Spanish bulls,

Wooly in the extreme and all humpbacked,

Of plenteous flesh and of black horns,

Most splendid lard and rich in fat,

And, like to he-goats, they have beards…."

       Through the summer of 2012, the Branigan Cultural Center, 501 N. Main St. in Las Cruces, has been the site of an informative exhibit called "The Bison: American Icon," which was organized by the C.M. Russell Museum and exhibited by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The exhibit will end on August 11 with a 2 p.m. lecture, "Significance of the Buffalo in Plains Indian Culture," by Donald Pepion.

The plains bison (like its close relative, the wood bison) belongs to artiodactyla — the even-toed ungulates — the taxonomic order that includes cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. According to the Colorado Foundation for Agriculture, it evolved directly from the 30%-larger Pleistocene bison (Bison antiquus), around the end of the last Ice Age, roughly 10,000 years ago. (Back in 1927, near Folsom, NM, a team of archeologists found Bison antiquus bones with a Folsom spear point embedded, marking a watershed discovery in the study of Ice Age peoples in North America.) Bison antiquus had evolved, in turn, from the still larger Bison latifrons about 22,000 years ago. Bison latifrons had a horn span of about seven feet.

Though the plains bison is often called a "buffalo," that term is incorrect. It suggests that the first Europeans to see the animal may have confused it with the more familiar Asian or African buffalo.

The Mammals of Texas describes the modern plains bison (Bison bison bison — yes, that's actually its taxonomic classification) as "a large, cowlike mammal with [a] distinct hump in the shoulder region; head, neck, shoulders, and forelegs with long shaggy hair; hind part of body with short hair; head heavy with short, curved, black horns; tail short and ending in [a] tuft of hair; color brownish black anteriorly, brownish posteriorly." The ears may be almost obscured by the long crown of hair on the head.

  • Size and weight: Among the largest land animals in North America, the plains bison bull may measure some 6 1/2 feet at the shoulder and 11 or 12 feet from the head to the rump. It may weigh as much as a ton. Typically, a plains bison cow is about 10% to 15% smaller than the bull.
  • bison 2
    Plains bison grazing, northeastern New Mexico.
    (Photo by Jay W. Sharp)

  • Head and hump: The low-set head and large hump may be anatomical adaptations to facilitate grazing the short-grass prairie lands, suggests Russell Dale Guthrie in his book Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe: The Story of Blue Babe. A bull's head, with a massive, thickly padded skull and permanent upward-curving horns supported by a heavily muscled neck, serves as a battering ram in fights between bulls.
  • Tail: According to Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson's American Bison, the plains bison's two-foot-long, tufted tail has been called a "weather-vane" that signals the animal's temperament: A loose, hanging tail indicates relaxation; a partially raised tail, alertness; a horizontal tail, excitement; a raised tail, combativeness.
  • Coat: The bison's thick winter coat — with coarse guard hairs and a downy undercoat — provides insulation so effective that snow accumulates on the animal's back without melting from the heat of the skin. The animal sheds its thick winter coat in the spring, wallowing in saucer-shaped dirt depressions, or "buffalo wallows," to loosen the hair and combat biting insects.
  • Senses: The bison's eyesight is poor, but its senses of hearing and smell are acute.
Distribution, Habitat and Diet

Prehistorically, according to Jim Pisarowicz, writing for South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park, the bison ranged "from the Great Slave Lake in northern Canada, south into Mexico and from coast to coast." According to some estimates, it numbered as many as 50 million to 60 million when Columbus arrived. The bison may have been the most abundant large mammal on the planet.




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