As the largest land animal in North America, the bison is among the hardiest, toughest, most resilient animals found on the continent.
With typical weights of as much as 2,000 pounds, the ability to run at 35 mph and an unpredictable temperament, they are a formidable force that can be deadly to natural predators. They are able to withstand extreme temperatures in both blizzard conditions and hot, dry summer conditions.
Yet, though the species can stand up to the worst that nature can dish out, they are vulnerable in the face of their biggest threat — humans. In less than a century, just a blip in geologic time, the great bison herds of North America were nearly driven to extinction solely by the actions of humans during the westward expansion of European settlement in the 19th century.
Though their population dramatically dropped from 40 million to under 1,000, concerted conservation efforts have thankfully brought the population back up to more than 500,000. Certainly, it is a success story, but also a stern cautionary tale.
The herds of today are only a fraction of what they once were and are much changed from the days of yore when they roamed free across the entire nation. Now, herds are very carefully managed in either parks or in private hands. Genetic diversity is an issue in the “wild” herds, while many of the commercially raised herds are actually cow/bison hybrids. Famed cattleman and former Pueblo resident Charles Goodnight was among those who experimented with breeding “cattalo” or “beefalo.”
Bison recently have been recovering status and respect with the passage of the National Bison Legacy Act, signed May 9, 2016, designating the American bison as the first official national mammal. This honor is well-deserved, as bison played a significant role in the grasslands ecosystem, Native American culture and the story of the American West.
The Pueblo Zoo is currently home to five bison. One of those was just born at the zoo in late May and illustrates a vulnerability posed by nature, not humans. Laramie has given birth to three calves over the past three years. However, motherhood has not come naturally to her and she has rejected all of her calves. In the wild, the calves would have died. At the zoo, the decision was made to hand-raise the calves until they could feed themselves.
Mother, baby and last year’s calf, Tank, soon will be moving to Kansas, so the baby will, unfortunately, not be on exhibit. However, two males — father Cody and son CJ — will stay and are magnificent to behold. Another female is expected to arrive soon.