The two species of bison are the American bison and the European bison. Bison may be colloquially called buffalo, but they are distinct from the true buffalo. As described below, bison decide what direction to move in by a majority vote. Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) traditions of non-coercion and equality are partly based on emulating the bison:
"The lives and the internal social structure of the buffalo were being interfered with by humans; they had been acquired recently from a larger herd and were confined by fences (albeit in a large pasture). Nonetheless, those buffalo people were attempting to live their lives as their ancestors had when they roamed freely over that same land. They lived freely as individuals without a coercive system of governance. According to my teachings, and my observations of those beings, they were a collective or a nation (in Blackfoot terms) which had an elaborate internal structure that engaged all individuals (both males and females) within that nation and enabled all individuals to seek out their own paths and realize their own power."
In the fall of 2017, around fifty bison in Poland's Bialowieza Forest welcomed a runaway cow into their herd. Humans reported seeing the cow and bison together in November and again in January of 2018. The bison seem to have protected the cow and taught her how to survive in the wild.
The following is from a Scientific American article titled "Bison 'Vote' on the Direction They'd Like the Herd to Move."
It turns out that European bison operate by majority rule.
These individuals “cast a vote” for the direction they would like to move by orienting their bodies, Ramos observed. If they want to graze in a meadow, they face the meadow. If they would rather slake their thirst, they turn toward a water hole. Eventually one bison makes a move. If the initiator advances in the direction preferred by most herd members, the group follows. If the initiator chooses a less popular option, few follow, and the group might split for a brief period. Anyone can initiate a movement, although adult females typically garner the largest number of followers. In essence, the initiator with the most votes wins and ends up leading most of the herd. The study was published recently in the journal Animal Behaviour.
The findings could help wildlife managers reduce conflict among farmers and bison, which frequently raid crops. By outfitting those individuals likely to be leaders with collars that deliver a mild shock, managers may be able to effectively control an entire herd.
European bison are not the only nonhuman species that make decisions collectively. The behavior has also been observed in animals ranging from other ungulates such as African buffalo to primates such as Tonkean macaques. For Ramos, the study is a reminder that “communication and consensus are two processes that also exist in the animal kingdom.”
For a contrary view, see the following from the U.S. National Park Service:
Dominance status in these different groups relates to age and sex. Males are dominant over females, with dominance increasing with age. All male groups exhibit a linear dominance hierarchy, where older and larger males are more dominant over younger and smaller males. Older male bison will become more solitary with increasingly aggressive behaviors. Similar dominance patterns exist with females, as older females will consistently make decisions for the group rather than younger females. It is documented that dominance rank also correlates with body condition, such as weight. An individual's weight at weaning correlates significantly with maternal rank.
- Kiera Ladner, "Governing Within an Ecological Context: Creating an AlterNative Understanding of Blackfoot Governance'," ‘’Studies in Political Economy’’ 70 (2003), 136.
- Dan Fischer, "Cows' Self-Liberation from Autumn 2017 to Spring 2018," Earth First! Journal Litha 2018, 53.
- Jason Goldman, "Bison 'Vote' on the Direction They'd Like the Herd to Move," Scientific American, 1 January 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bison-vote-on-the-direction-they-d-like-the-herd-to-move/.