Big, hairy deal: In politics and nature, is ‘buffalo’ or ‘bison’ the right word?

Big, hairy deal: In politics and nature, is ‘buffalo’ or ‘bison’ the right word?
At least, it’s a question some are asking this week, after an abundance of hairy bovine news, ranging from the natural to the political.

They’re both big and shaggy, so what is the difference between buffalo and bison?

Whatever you call them, the Canadian prairies were once thick with moving herds of them. And we used to call them buffalo. Peter Erasmus, translator for Treaty 6, which covers central Alberta and Saskatchewan, wrote about galloping a horse in some of the last big hunts of the late 19th century in his book Buffalo Days and Nights. Buffy Sainte-Marie laments Now That the Buffalo’s Gone in song. Even classic country tune Home on the Range longs for a home where the buffalo roam.

But nowadays, sticklers insist that Canada never had buffalo, and that it’s bison.

What gives?

First, to recap recent buffalo news: On Thursday, a group of Conservative MPs with the so-called Buffalo declaration. The document, which purports to stand up for the West, demands that the federal government “recognize Alberta — or Buffalo — as a culturally distinct region within Confederation.”

This is a reference to Sir Frederick Haultain, the first premier of the Northwest Territories, who argued for the creation of a single territory called Buffalo. (He also wanted it to be managed by non-partisan governments, though that’s not in the declaration.) Instead, Alberta and Saskatchewan were created as separate entitles in 1905.

While political drama was unfolding, a small herd of bison were causing problems of their own outside the northern Alberta village of Hythe.

RCMP warned residents Wednesday that 15 bison had escaped a trailer parked at a Husky gas station in the village, which has a population of less than 1,000 people. As of Thursday, three of the animals were still at large.

It’s technically true that there are no buffalo native to North America. As far as biologists are concerned, that name only belongs to the cape buffalo of Africa and the water buffalo of Asia.

To tell the difference, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica advises focusing on the three H’s: home, hump and horns.

Buffalo, as mentioned, live in Asia and Africa. Buffalo don’t have a a hump at the shoulders, though bison do. Buffalo also have big horns — some, approaching two metres. (Buffalo also have beards, though that is not an H.)
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