On their grand trek known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition from May 1804 to September 1806, famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark mapped much of the western portion of the United States. Along their route, they studied animals, plant life and geography.
In their journals, Lewis & Clark documented the vast wilderness, noting that it took them two days on horseback to ride past one herd of American bison, of which 60 million once darkened the plains. Hide hunters, sport shooters, tongue lovers and the U.S. Army, the latter set on eliminating the traveling commissary on which Native Americans subsisted in the late 1800s, reduced the number of bison to near-extinction. South Dakota rancher Scotty Peterson is credited with saving the bison and today, approximately 500,000 exist in North America.
Even though the species is formally called the American bison, the “Patriarch of the Plains” is commonly referred to as the “buffalo,” a term coined by early-day French explorers who called them “les boeufs.” A bull can weigh up to 2,000 pounds while a cow generally weighs half that. Most bison live 12-15 years, although a few have lived as long as 20 years. Feeding primarily on grasses and sedges, bison mate July through August and give birth to one cinnamon-colored calf in late April or May. Aggressive and agile, a bison can run up to 35 mph.
Today, bison are a popular meat for consumers attracted to its protein-rich, low-fat, no-cholesterol content. Major private herds exist for this purpose, while state and federal governments still maintain herds throughout the West.