Buffalo or Bison: What's in a Name?

Buffalo or Bison: What's in a Name?
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Hillary Rosner's recent OnEarth story about a quarantined bison herd that needs a good home has stirred up quite a debate on the Facebook page of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Interestingly, the debate has nothing to do with relocating the wild bison to Ted Turner's private Montana ranch, which is the tension at the heart of Hillary's story. Instead, it's about what we should call these majestic animals. Are they bison, buffalo or both?

I'm a word nerd, so I decided to look into it.

From a scientific standpoint, the question is an easy one. Their scientific name is Bison bison (the animal so nice they named it twice?), so "bison" is the most accurate way of referring to them. (The plains buffalo, a subspecies, is actually the Bison bison bison.) The American animal is only distantly related to the "true" buffalo found in Africa and Asia.

But culturally, traditionally, colloquially, etc., it's a little more complicated. "Buffalo" is the common name for bison, one that you'll hear used frequently throughout the West. (As a kid living in Oklahoma, I certainly never heard them referred to as "bison.")

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls them "American buffalo" on its website. There's a buffalo nickel. There were buffalo soldiers. There's a Buffalo National River (in Arkansas) and Wood Buffalo National Park (in Canada). There's even a popular song: "Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam ..."

So the name "buffalo" -- scientifically correct or not -- is woven into the fabric of American society and the history of the West.

In his 2008 book American Buffalo, Steven Rinella explores the history of the name. As with so many good English words, Shakespeare is involved:

"First off, it's important to be clear that there is no difference between the American buffalo and the American bison. The word ‘buffalo' likely originated in a roundabout way involving the English. In Shakespeare's time, military men often wore a type of protective jacket known as a buff coat; these coats were thick and soft and make of undyed leather. When Englishmen arrived in the New World, they would often describe any animal that yielded such leather as a "buff," be it a moose or a manatee. Eventually all of the other North American animals acquired their own particular names, and the largest of them, the American buffalo, walked away with exclusive rights to the title. The named bounced around a bit -- buffs, bufle, buffle, buffalo, buffaloe -- but it had begun to settle into its modern form by the time of the American revolution.

"The problem with the word ‘buffalo' is that it has already been given away a couple of times earlier, once to the water buffalo of Asia and once to the Cape buffalo of Africa. Taxonomists, the people in the business of naming and classifying organisms, saw this as a problem, particularly because the American buffalo is not closely related to either of those creatures. As a solution, they began promoting the word ‘bison,' which had already been used in the Latin name of a closely related European animal, the wisent (Bison bonasus). It seems as though these efforts to clarify the situation were in vain: we've now got an animal with two perfectly serviceable names, and many discussions about the animal inevitably begin with the question, ‘What's the difference between buffalo and bison?'"

So the fact that the question erupted on Facebook should come as no surprise. I also asked NRDC's wildlife experts, who are engaged in trying to preserve and protect the bison, what they thought about the name.

Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Wildlife Conservation Program, says he personally likes "buffalo" because it's more evocative of the West. A good analogy, he says, is the mountain lion, which has a number of names depending on culture and location -- cougar, panther, puma, etc. -- none of which would be considered incorrect.

Matt Skoglund in NRDC's Montana office says that as long as people are discussing ways to protect the animal, he's happy with whatever name they use. Commenter Loren Mickelson makes the same point on Facebook: "Who cares what we call these animals as long as (their) continued repopulation on their native lands is continued?"

To that end, I recommend that you read the article that touched off the discussion: Homeless on the Range. Whatever your preferred name, if you care about these animals, you'll be interested in the story it tells about an effort designed to help repopulate them across the West, and the hang-ups that effort has encountered.

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