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Bison vs. Buffalo

Despite the classic western song, Home on The Range, with it's lyrics "Oh! Give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play", the buffalo does not roam the American West, it is the bison that does.

The easiest way to tell a bison and a buffalo apart is by looking at their home, horns, hump, and hair.


  • There are two types of bison: the North American bison— found in North America, and the European bison— found (you guessed it) in parts of Europe. The North American bison is the species that you will see in Yellowstone National Park, and throughout the West.

  • Similarly, there are two types of buffalo: the water buffalo—found in South Asia, and the Cape buffalo—found in Africa.


  • Bison have short and sharp horns.

  • Buffalo have longer horns, that can reach up six feet from point to point. Horns differ from water buffalo to Cape buffalo, but in general, are much larger and more pronounced that horns of a bison.


  • Bison have a big hump on their shoulders that allow them to use their massive heads as a plow to clear away snow in the winter.

  • On the other hand, Buffalo do not have a hump on their shoulders.


  • Both male and female bison have thick hair and a long, pronounced "beard" that keeps them warm in the cold winter months.

  • Buffalo, however, have shorter hair because they live in warmer climates.



  • Yellowstone is home to the most important bison herd in the United States, for it is the country’s largest bison population on public land. It is also the only place in the United States that bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times.

  • In the 1880's, bison were hunted to near extinction. The bison herd in Yellowstone was the last free-ranging herd in the country, and the only place where bison were not extirpated (made locally extinct).

  • The bison that you see roaming through the park today are the descendants of 23 bison that survived the mass slaughter of the 19th century.

  • In 1907, the Lamar Buffalo [sic] Ranch was established as an early conservation efforts for the small bison herd. The bison were semi-domesticated until ecologists could get their numbers up, and once the herd size increased, they were released into the wild with the free-ranging bison.


  • As the largest land-dwelling animal in the United States, male bison can weigh up to one ton. They have a distinct hump on their shoulders, pure muscle, that allows them to swing their heavy head from one side to the other, in order to clear snow in the winter.

  • Mating season occurs in late-summer, and is characterized by male bison grumbling and groaning as they roam around looking for a mate. It is important to be especially cautious and aware when around male bison during mating season, that is 2,000 pounds of sexual aggression.

  • Bison calves are referred to as “red dogs” because of their amber color when they are born. Typically, bison calves are born in a short time period between April and May, this phenomenon is called “birth synchrony”.

  • Bison are commonly found in Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley.

You can read more about the bison on the National Park Service's website.


Join Nomadic By Nature for a guided backpacking trip, and see the best that Yellowstone has to offer!

This guided backpacking trip through Lamar Valley, in the northeast corner of the park, covers some of the best scenery Yellowstone has to offer. You will hike through wide-open meadows scattered with bison, pronghorn, and other big mammals, all the while following the majestic Lamar River. Eventually, the trail takes you over the mighty Mist Pass and drops into Pelican Valley — a massive expanse of rolling grass, slow-moving creeks, and a true wildlife stronghold.

On the six-day version of Lamar to Pelican Valley, we will have a layover day on the fourth day, giving us the chance to hike to Frost Lake. The layover day will help break up the miles, and give us more opportunities to look for wildlife in Lamar Valley.

Of all the trips Nomadic By Nature offers, this trip offers the best chance to see wildlife in the backcountry.

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