Bison are the largest land mammals in North America, and can weigh up to 2000 pounds. These huge creatures will eat up to 24 pounds of food per day, preferring grasses when available, and are required to drink water daily. They have brown, shaggy fur, with a large hump on their back and huge heads sporting short horns. These bison, sometimes called buffalo, were once plentiful in the great plains, with nearly 15 million individuals spread throughout the grasslands. This abundance led to the bison being a huge part of Native American life, right up until they were driven to near extinction by settlers. However, ongoing efforts have helped rebuild the population to a working number of around 500,000 animals in both the United States and Canada. Today, limited hunting options have been made available for this iconic species.
There are currently opportunities to hunt wild bison on public land in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. These hunts are all lottery based tag drawings that are not only very difficult to draw, but also have successful harvest rates of below 50%. However, these are truly wild, free-range animals, just like those hunted by the Native Americans and settlers hundreds of years ago.
On the other hand, there are opportunities to hunt bison on private ranches in several western states as well as Mexico. These ranches typically guarantee success, as the ranches are well managed, and the guides have a good understanding of their herd’s movements. These hunts are far more expensive than the public land options, but provide a sure way to hunt a bison and nearly guarantee a successful harvest.
The areas that offer wild bison hunts typically have small groupings of animals spread over large tracts of land. This scattering of animals, coupled with the fact that bison sometimes travel several miles per day, forces hunters to cover a lot of ground until they find sign. However, bison are not known for being subtle creatures, as even small herds leave huge amounts of sign, often making massive rubs on trees and wallows that could sink a truck. If you are lucky enough to find sign like this, be sure to spend some time glassing the area. Bison are also known for producing a very strong smell. If you are in the woods and it suddenly smells like a cattle farm, you have likely found the herd.
Bison are massive animals that are extremely tough, making your choice of weapon and shot placement very important. Rifles shooting upwards of 300 win mag sized calibers are needed for taking down these brutes, and it is also very important that you hit the animal just behind the shoulder, as they are not forgiving when it comes to poor shooting. Be sure you are comfortable with your rifle and do not take a shot you are not 100% confident taking, as a wounded bison is not a problem anyone wants to deal with. As long as they are not winded, bison are not particularly spooky animals, so do not be afraid to get in close to ensure a fatal shot.
Tags for wild, free-range buffalo are all lottery based tags. These tags are popular, and there are very few available, making the odds of drawing slim. Montana for example, allots only 10% of the small district quotas to non-residents, and popular units in Alaska have less than a one percent chance of drawing a tag for both residents and non-residents. However, it does not hurt to apply, as application fees are usually very reasonable. If you are fortunate enough to draw, tags are similarly priced to Montana’s deer/elk combo.
Some states have specific weapons requirements when hunting bison. For example, Montana requires rifle bullets to be centerfire and have a grain weight of 150 or higher. Those wishing to archery hunt to complete an archery orientation course. Be sure to check the local regulations for any such rules to ensure you are legal.
Bison meat is of the highest quality. Unlike many other game animals, bison fat does not necessarily need to be removed, as it only adds to the meat’s flavor. If you are looking to harvest a bison for meat, it is best to focus on younger bulls and cows, as these are very tender and will still provide hundreds of pounds of meat. Older bulls still taste good, but often lose their tenderness and become very tough.