Buffalo and Bison

The terms ‘buffalo’ and ‘bison’ are obviously very common in this business. They’re used so often, and sometimes interchangeably, that the average person might not know the distinction. There are very important differences between them that the consumer needs to know.

Explorers of North America often encountered animals they had never seen before. Bison were one of these. And so, because they resembled African buffalo, they called this animal buffalo as well.

And so when you hear the term ‘American Buffalo’, what they’re really talking about is a particular species of bison native to North America. They used to roam the continent in vast herds, but were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. In the 20th century, however, the species saw a big comeback due to the expansion of national parks and reserves. The modern bison industry, including a variety of ranchers and landowners in the United States has also allowed them to become profitable without overhunting.

Just like the American buffalo, there is also a species of ‘European buffalo’, which are also actually bison as well. They were rare at the time of expansion into the ‘New World’. And thus, Europeans used the same terminology the settlers of North America used: buffalo.

Actual buffalo—not bison—are native to Africa and India. When someone says ‘African buffalo’,, they are actually referring to a variety of species of buffalo, and not bison like the ‘American buffalo’.

And the Asian water buffalo is another distinction. There are two varieties of water buffalo: domesticated and wild. Water buffalo have been domesticated for thousands of years, and have been used for meat, horns, hides, milk, farming, and transportation. Even now, they are still widely used. The wild water buffalo, however, is much less prosperous. Only a few thousand still exist in the world, and they are listed as an endangered species.

In short, bison are native to North America and Europe. Buffalo are native to Africa and India. People use bison and buffalo interchangeably in polite conversation.

Collection of hides hanging in the workshop at Merlin’s Hide Out, Thermopolis, WY

Hides

An animal hide is simply the skin of an animal specifically treated so that we can use it. More specifically, a ‘hide’ often specifically refers to the skins of large animals, such as buffalo. If we talk about ‘skins’, we often mean the skins of smaller animals like foxes, snakes, and even up to deer.

Historically, hides served as one of the main sources of clothing for humanity. Before we had the ability to sew intricate garments, we used hides to cover ourselves to protect us from harsh temperatures and from injury.

Now, hides are just one of many types of garment. But they remain special for their handcrafted nature and aesthetic.

Tanning

Tanning is the process of converting the hides and skins of animals into leather. A tannery is the place where those skins and hides are processed. The finished leather is more durable and long-lasting than the skin or hide used to make it, which in many cases makes it more valuable.

This process has gone through numerous changes over the years. However, the end result of a comfortable, yet rugged garment remains the same.

Prime Fur Buffalo Hide by Merlin’s Hide Out

Prime Fur

Prime fur is the highest quality fur. ‘Prime’ refers to fur gathered at a particular time of the year, when the fur of the animal is ‘primed’ to be harvested. This prime fur occurs naturally based on the light levels the animal experiences during the year. Thus, hunting seasons are often based partially on when the fur of that animal will be prime.

If you want to know more about the different grades of fur, including what makes a fur prime, stay tuned, we will have a breakdown in a post soon!

Brown buffalo wool and fur. Soft and plush.
Collection of Buffalo Robes ready for grading at Merlin’s Hide Out, Thermopolis, WY

Buffalo Robe

Buffalo hides, while great for use in rugs and wall hangings, are also often used as clothing. Any buffalo hide that is used to cover most of a person’s body is called a buffalo robe. They usually are made using hide that has a greater concentration of fur, which means that the wearer will be kept more warm and comfortable compared to other types of hide. However, while they are great for keeping warm, nowadays they are worn more as a fashion statement. The distinctive look makes it stand out among other types of clothing.

One thought on “Is it a Buffalo or Bison — What’s the Difference?

  1. Judy Pannell says:

    Thanks for the info on bison/ buffalo! So enjoy coming to your shop as we travel out West to do our Artisans Shows!
    Missed it this year, however all are well at our house so no complaints!

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