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Here in the town that Buffalo Bill Cody founded 125 years ago, you’d think there’d be one cast-in-concrete, no-doubt-about-it fact we’d all agree on. That would be that that large furry creature lumbering along the scenic byways, grazing in the valleys of Yellowstone National Park and memorialized in bronze at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is called a buffalo, right? 


If you’re curious about why things are a little confusing, you’ve come to the right place! Today, we’re answering the age-old question, is that a bison or a buffalo?

Is That a Bison or a Buffalo?

A Simple Mistake Prevails for Hundreds of Years

First thing first. The term “buffalo”, as it applies to our North American species, is simply incorrect. The famous mammal’s correct name is “bison.” 

Why the misnomer? Well, it goes all the way back to the early settlers who arrived  in the American West from across the Atlantic. They called the bison, “buffalo”. And they had a good reason! After all, they look a lot like the African buffalo. But despite their similarities, the species are not related, and the proper term for our species is “bison.”  The scientific term is actually “Bison bison,” suggesting the biologist behind the species’ moniker liked the name. A lot.

A bison sits in the grass by the water
(Photo: @brantley_payne)

So How Do You Tell Them Apart?

We know what you’re thinking, if bison and buffalo aren’t the same species, then what’s the difference, and how do you tell them apart? That’s a great question — one we’re happy to answer! Bison, in general, are bulkier up front. They have large humps at their shoulders, and their heads are larger than buffalo, and they usually have a little beard. Buffalo, on the other hand, have horns that are more pronounced than bison. They are long, with a thick base, and curved, while a bison’s horns are typically short and sharp.  in a crescent, while a bison’s horns are typically sharp and shorter than the average buffalo’s

Give Me a Home, Where the Bison Roam

At one time in this country, as many as 60 million bison lived in North America. They roamed from New York to California and from as far south as northern Mexico to southern Canada. Other subspecies lived even farther north to Alaska and northern Canada. The bison was a huge part of the culture and life of the Plains Indians in this country, with the animal providing food, clothing, housing, and much more.

There were herds so huge that trains were forced to stop until they could clear the animals from the tracks. Killing bison became a popular sport, and passengers would shoot them from trains and simply leave their carcasses behind. 

In fact, Colonel William F. Cody earned his famous nickname as a buffalo hunter charged with supplying meat to workers along the Kansas Pacific Railroad. In just 18 months, he shot 4,282 bison, and the happy, well-fed crew on the railroad bestowed upon him his famous moniker, “Buffalo Bill.”

A Species Brought Back From the Brink

Bisons with young calfs on field in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

Bison were killed with such success that they came close to extinction by the early part of the 20th century. The species was saved from being wiped out by wildlife managers in Yellowstone, who protected a small herd and allowed them to repopulate at the Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. There are now some 4,600 free-roaming bison in the Greater Yellowstone region. The American bison was named our country’s national mammal in 2016. 

Come See Our National Mammal With Your Own Eyes

Two traditional Teepee's in front of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Whether you call them bison or buffalo, we’re not sticklers here in Cody Yellowstone. In fact, all we want to do is show off their majestic beauty! There are plenty of ways for you to see and learn about the West’s most famous mammal. You can learn all about the species and see the artwork it inspired at the five museums of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in downtown Cody. Bison can also often be spotted year-round throughout Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding region. 

Have you ever heard the expression “Going the way of the buffalo” (er, bison)? Well, this is the one time we would encourage it! Start planning your Cody Yellowstone getaway today.