Bison/Buffalo in Virginia

Wilderness Road State Park in Lee County maintains a herd of buffalo
Wilderness Road State Park in Lee County maintains a herd of buffalo

Bison were native to Virginia. When Europeans first arrived, their range extended from Florida to New York and from Mexico to Alaska. There were perhaps 60 million bison, grazing primarily on grasslands and steppes. They would create "wallows," depressions in loose soil, so the dust would deter biting insects.

Bison who wander on the open range naturally live in bands arranged by sex, age, season, and habitat. A mature male may be dominant over 30 animals, and he may lose up to 200 pounds during breeding season as he maintains control over his cows. Though bison are gregarious animals, the older bulls which are no longer able to control cows for breeding end up living solitary lives.

bison created wallows to generate dust that deterred biting insects
bison created "wallows" to generate dust that deterred biting insects
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Typical surface underlain by the Ogahalla formation of the high plains of western Kansas and buffalo wallow (Haskell County, Kansas, 1897)

The American species (Bison bison) is different from the European bison (Bison bonasus), which still survive from Germany to Belarus. Though the American bison is typically called a "buffalo," technically bison and buffalo are different species. Bison have long, shaggy beards and a distinctive hump at their shoulder. Though bison are the largest terrestrial animals in North America, they are smaller than the water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) that live between India and Cambodia and the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) living south of the Sahara Desert.

The North American bison was almost exterminated in the 1800's due to over-hunting. Roughly 50 million bison were killed, in part to eliminate the natural food source for Native American tribes on the Great Plains and force them to settle on reservations set aside by the Federal government.

In 1889 the Superintendent of the National Zoological Park in Washington DC, William Hornady, highlighted the concern that pure-blood bison would be lost irretrievably. He helped ensure the species did not go extinct.

Within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, just one wild herd of 23 animals survived in the early 1900's. Less than 1,000 bison remained in North America, creating a genetic bottleneck.

At what is now Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, the remaining animals maintained more genetic diversity than other herds held in captivity, and those animals are used to help repopulate various herds across the Great Plains. Today, about 500,000 bison occupy just 1% of that range in fragmented herds.

Many bison today have a small percentage of cattle genes. Bison and wild cattle interbred ever since the Spanish brought cattle to Mexico in the 1500's, and bison were intentionally bred with cattle in the 1900's in efforts to expand the population.1

bison were killed in such large numbers that it was cost-effective to collect bones and process them into fertilizer and other products
bison were killed in such large numbers that it was cost-effective to collect bones and process them into fertilizer and other products
Source: Detroit Public Library, Men standing with pile of buffalo skulls, Michigan Carbon Works (1892)

In Virginia, the "wood bison" grazed in small bands. It may have been a subspecies (Bison bison anthabascae), or just adapted to the eastern deciduous woodlands.

As the ice sheet retreated 8,000 years ago, bison expanded their range east of the Mississippi River and migrated from what is now Ohio and Kentucky into Virginia/West Virginia. The population increased significantly in the 1500's. By the time of European colonization, there were an estimated 2-4 million bison living east of the Mississippi River.

The population increase reflected the impact of expanding Native American agricultural practices, which created more open fields. The Hopewell culture also created ceremonial landscapes with a higher percentage of grasslands, facilitating bison expansion in the Ohio River watershed. Human-set fires established meadows and more habitat in the Alleghenies, Shenandoah Valley, and even the James River/Roanoke River/Potomac River valleys east of the Blue Ridge that was suitable for grazing animals.

Apparently the small population of Native Americans resulted in just light hunting pressure. That allowed the bison population to expand, in contrast to the pattern at the end of the Ice Age where hunting pressure led to the extinction of grazing mammoths.2

Bison trails crisscrossed the Allegheny Mountains as the large animals moved between different salt licks and grass-rich valleys, and perhaps south in the winter. The Virginia bison may have migrated seasonally through Cumberland Gap, to move from the Powell River valleys to the bluegrass prairies in Kentucky. Compared to the herds on the Great Plains that Lewis and Clark saw on their journey in 1804-6, Virginia herds would have been smaller.

Bison were hunted by the Native Americans and the early colonial explorers. Dr. Thomas Walker recorded in his journal:3

March 15th. We went to the great Lick on A Branch of the Staunton and bought Corn of Michael Campbell for our horses. This Lick has been one of the best places for Game in these parts and would have been of much greater advantage to the Inhabitants than it has been if the Hunters had not killed the Buffaloes for diversion, and the Elks and Deer for their skins.

Bison were the largest land animal in Virginia after the Ice Age. In 1730, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported:4

John Pemberton killed a buffalo upon Shunadore River [Shenandoah River] which weighed after it was dressed 1400 weight, and the hide 300. There was one kill'd there some time before, which weigh'd 1800: and in those parts 'tis said they frequently see ten or more of those creatures together.

William Byrd II feasted on bison when exploring his Land of Eden grant south of the Dan River. Buffalo skins were still being sold in Augusta County in 1749. In 1769, George Washington killed a bison near the Kanawha River in what is now West Virginia.

Bison concentrated where they could obtain minerals at "salt licks." After Dr. Thomas Walker crossed through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky in 1750, he reported seeing concentrations of buffalo where salty brine came to the surface and formed a salt lick:5

At the Mouth of a Creek that comes in on the East side there is a Lick, and I believe there was a hundred Buffaloes at it.

buffalo are included in the artwork at Cumberland Gap's Pinnacle overlook, commemorating colonial expansion through southwestern Virginia in the second half of the Eighteenth Century
buffalo are included in the artwork at Cumberland Gap's Pinnacle overlook, commemorating colonial expansion through southwestern Virginia in the second half of the Eighteenth Century

A query of the Geographic Names Information System produces a list of 79 place names in Virginia with "buffalo," suggesting how common they were.6

Bison are raised in Virginia today primarily for the meat, though the hide and even the bones are sold as well. Farm-raised bison, like cattle, may be vaccinated to prevent the bacterial disease brucellosis.

Compared to beef, bison meat is low in cholesterol, fat and calories. Cardiac patients on a restricted diet can enjoy a big steak, so long as the meat is bison.

The Buffalo Hill Farm in Rockingham County once had the largest herd of buffalo east of the Mississippi River. It was started by a local resident who won a buffalo at a turkey shoot while travelling in the western United States. He bought more, primarily from from the herd at Custer State Park in South Dakota, and once had nearly 200 bison before selling the ranch in 1979.

Travelers on I-81 would stop to look at the bison. James Madison University students returning to the campus recognized they were nearby when they spotted the bison again.

The billionaire president of Seagram's distillery, Edgar Bronfman Sr., once had the largest bison operation east of the Mississippi River. His farm staff raised bison at Gorgetown Farm in Albemarle County and Buffalo Hill in Madison County. The meat was processed at a slaughterhouse in Madison County. It was sold at the Georgetown Farm Market in Charlottesville, and to Washington area restaurants and stores.

Buffalo meat was far more expensive than beef and by 2005, Bronfman closed down his bison operations. A Charlottesville newspaper later speculated that any remaining bison were sent to Bronfman's larger farm in Oklahoma:7

The Georgetown bison most likely went west, young man.

A couple who had worked for Bronfman opened an abattoir in Madison County in 1997. They still raise bison and operate the slaughterhouse there, as New Frontier Bison. Melrose Farm in Campbell County, Hollow Hill Buffalo Farm in Tazewell County, and Edmonds Farm in Lancaster County are among the Virginia farms that raise bison today.

all bison in Virginia are now fenced in, no longer able to roam at will
all bison in Virginia are now fenced in, no longer able to roam at will

Cibola Farm in Culpeper County has rebranded itself as the Virginia Bison Company, in order to help customers recognize their product. The meaning of "Cibola" was not recognized clearly:8

Cibola is the Spanish version of the Pueblo Indian word for Bison, which is "si:wolo."

The Virginia Bison Company emphasizes the differences between raising cattle and bison:9

It is only because of modern technology that we are able to keep them fenced in using special wildlife fencing that is much taller than cattle fencing and quite expensive. The corral is more than twice as fortified as one that would be used for cattle... [Bison] are very aggressive and can be very dangerous, and they never become tame or friendly. Bison can run 40 miles per hour, use their horns as weapons and can jump 5 feet from a standing position. Thomas Jefferson once tried to keep a bison at Monticello using 18th century fencing technology and it lasted about 3 hours before the animal busted out and was gone.

...Bison produce a small quantity of milk that is very thick, rich and sticky compared with cattle milk. It is impossible to milk bison due to the danger and stress on the cow and the quantity of milk produced makes this uneconomical to even consider. Buffalo mozzarella is made from water buffalo, but not bison.

when Cibola Farm moves bison to different pastures, signs are moved as well so visitors can find them
when Cibola Farm moves bison to different pastures, signs are moved as well so visitors can find them

In 2000, eight bison escaped from a farm's bison corral in Culpeper County. They were found individually by hunters over the next 3-4 years.

In 2018, a rusty chain on a gate broke and 134 bison left Cibola Farm to explore the woods, pastures, and even a vegetable garden along Stonehouse Mountain Road. All were herded back into the farm's pasture later that day. After recognizing the sound of an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) which the bison associated with feeding, most willingly followed that vehicle back to the farm. That was the largest herd of free-roaming bison in Virginia for the last two centuries.10

Modern efforts to restore the grassland ecosystem in the Great Plains depend upon restoring the bison population at the same time. The wild prairie was shaped by 30-60 million grazing bison before the Wild West was tamed. Ecologists calculated in the 2008 Vermejo Statement:11

....that to foster a functioning prairie ecosystem at least 5,000 bison would need to be able to migrate freely on some 450,000 contiguous, fenceless acres.

The Animals of Virginia at the Time of European Discovery

Cattle in Virginia

in 2018, bison escaped Cibola Farm and wandered for a day along Stonehouse Mountain Road in Culpeper County
in 2018, bison escaped Cibola Farm and wandered for a day along Stonehouse Mountain Road in Culpeper County
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Links

Native Americans, and then later immigrants such as Daniel Boone, hunted buffalo in the backcountry of Virginia
Native Americans, and then later immigrants such as Daniel Boone, hunted buffalo in the backcountry of Virginia

References

1. "What's the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?," Treehugger, August 17, 2022, https://www.treehugger.com/difference-between-bison-and-buffalo-6499776; "American bison," Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Institute, https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/american-bison; "Restoring the American Bison," Greatr Yellowstone Coalition, https://greateryellowstone.org/bison; "Putting Bison Back on the Prairie in North and South Dakota," The Nature Conservancy, August 30, 2018, https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/north-dakota/stories-in-north-dakota/putting-bison-back-on-the-prairie/; "William T. Hornady on the Extermination of the American Bison (1889)," The American Yawp Reader, https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/17-conquering-the-west/william-t-hornady-on-the-extermination-of-the-american-bison-1889/; "Cattle History in North America," AllAboutBison, https://allaboutbison.com/cattle-history-in-north-america/; "Photo: Man Standing on Large Pile of Bison Skulls," Snopes, February 25, 2016, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/pile-bison-bones-photo/ (last checked October 27, 2022)
2. Melissa A. Thomas-Van Gundy, Jessica D. Perkins, Crystal Krause, Cynthia D. Huebner, Lorenzo Ferrari,Linda S. Smith, "Primeval Paths: Bison in West Virginia," Natural Areas Journal, Volume 41, Issue 4 (October 2021), https://doi.org/10.3375/21-18; Linda S. Smith, "Bison In Pioneer West Virginia," ResearchGate, 1989, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356361188_Appendix_1_bison_in_WV; John A. Jakle, "The American Bison and the Human Occupance of the Ohio Valley," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 112, Number 4 (August 15, 1968), https://www.jstor.org/stable/985874; "Bison Bellows," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-9-16-16.htm (last checked August 21, 2022)
3. "Doctor Thomas Walker's Journal (6 Mar 1749/50 - 13 Jul 1750) - A Record of His Travels in Present-day Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky," TNGenWeb Project, http://www.tngenweb.org/tnland/squabble/walker.html (last checked September 22, 2018)
4. "1700's," All About Bison, https://allaboutbison.com/bison-in-history/1700s/ (August 21, 2022)
5. "Journal of Doctor Thomas Walker - 1749-1750," West Virginia Archives and History, http://www.wvculture.org/history/settlement/loyalcompany02.html; "Bison Bellows," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-9-16-16.htm (last checked August 21, 2022)
6. Charles E. Kemper, "Papers Read Before the Lancaster County Historical Society, Volumes 25-26," Lancaster County Historical Society, 1921, p.147, https://books.google.com/books?id=-tUwAQAAMAAJ; Geographic Names Information System, US Geological Survey, https://geonames.usgs.gov/domestic/index.html (last checked September 22, 2018)
7. "The Other Red Meat," Washington Post, May 30, 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/2001/05/30/the-other-red-meat/42bae1c3-b955-47fd-952b-1af924c7f9a2/; "Alumni look back on memories of local buffalo ranch," The Breeze, December 10, 2020, https://www.breezejmu.org/culture/alumni-look-back-on-memories-of-local-buffalo-ranch/article_61b88d10-3a4e-11eb-bf61-43ebc77bdc64.html (last checked August 21, 2022)
8. "Bison and Nutrition Facts," Eastern Bison Association, https://www.ebabison.org/facts; "What's in a Name," Virginia Bison Company at Cibola Farm, https://virginiabison.com/; "Brucellosis," Yellowstone National Park, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/brucellosis.htm; New Frontier Farm, https://www.newfrontierbison.com/ (last checked August 21, 2022)
9. "Bison," Virginia Bison Company at Cibola Farm, https://virginiabison.com/bison/ (last checked August 21, 2022)
10. "Farm Stories," Virginia Bison Company at Cibola Farm, https://virginiabison.com/farm/stories/ (last checked August 21, 2022)
11. "Where the Bison Could Roam," New York Times, January 10, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/10/science/bison-prairie-grassland.html; Eric W. Sanderson et al., "The Ecological Future of the North American Bison: Conceiving Long-Term, Large-Scale Conservation of Wildlife," Conservation Biology, April 8, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00899.x (last checked January 23, 2023)

bison at Cibola Farms have ear tags
bison at Cibola Farms have ear tags

a barn at Cibola Farms displays bison skulls
a barn at Cibola Farms displays bison skulls


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