Here’s what you need to know about buffalo and their history in Indiana

Buffaloes were immortalized in the US in 2016 when the National Bison Legacy Act made them our national mammal.

An image of a buffalo jumping over a tree trunk is also featured on Indiana’s official seal.

For thousands of years before Europeans settled North America, buffalo were plentiful and kept the grasslands healthy while providing food, clothing, and spiritual connections to the indigenous peoples who lived here. The population is estimated to have peaked at around 30 million (some estimates range as high as 60 million).

But habitat loss and overhunting from the early 1800s reduced numbers to below 1,000 by the 1880s. That’s when conservation groups and tribal councils began their efforts to restore the iconic animals – work that continues today in northern Indiana and across the US.

The Basics of Buffalo Biology

The scientific name for buffalo is Bison bison and the words are used interchangeably. Buffalo are the largest mammal on the continent, weighing up to 2,000 kilos and measuring 1.80 meters in length. The average lifespan is 10-20 years.

The animals may look heavy and slow, but buffalo can run up to 55 km per hour, are excellent swimmers and can even jump over high fences.

To get the energy they need, buffalo forage for up to 11 hours a day on grasses and leafy plants.

Buffalo Reintroduction in Indiana

Indiana’s grasslands used to be home to herds of wild buffalo so large they formed the first trail to appear on state maps. Buffalo Trace travels just north of the Hoosier National Forest and winds into Illinois.

Wild buffalo in Indiana were killed in 1830, when the last was reportedly shot in Orange County.

Now the Indiana chapter of the Nature Conservancy is restoring a prairie where about 90 buffalo roam, and as that herd grows, some are being sent to help Native American tribes across the country restore their herds.

Buffalo are natural stewards of our environment

Before European settlers hunted buffalo to near extinction, tens of millions of wild animals lived in North America, shaping and contributing to the health of grassland ecosystems.

Buffaloes graze over large areas of land and chew grass to varying heights. These varying grasses provide a variety of habitats for birds to nest and stay safe from predators.

The large animals also roll on the ground, known as wallowing, leaving depressions in the ground. Rainwater fills these divots, creating breeding pools for amphibians and watering holes for other thirsty wildlife.

Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environmental reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk

IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

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