This is a question we get asked a lot! In the U.S. and at American Prairie, the terms bison and buffalo are used interchangeably – but they’re actually two different animals.

Bison roam the ground in North American and Europe. A buffalo is either a Cape Buffalo found in Africa, or a Water Buffalo from South Asia. Both bison and buffalo are part of the Bovidae but they are actually not closely related.

How did the names get so mixed up? According to our partners at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, the confusion began centuries ago when early European settlers in the western U.S. started referring to American bison roaming the plains as buffalo.

Indigenous Peoples have many names for this majestic mammal, including buffalo, but also iinniiwa in Blackfoot, tatanka in Lakota, ivanbito in Navajo, and Kuts in Paiute. One tribe has dozens of names, depending on the size, age, and sex of the animal, as well as their health and the condition of their hide at a certain time.

Whether you decide to call them bison or buffalo, it’s important to remember our national mammal is the most significant animal to many Indigenous Peoples, who relied on them for their survival, and who are leading the way in buffalo restoration efforts across the continent.

Bison are considered a keystone species, which essentially means they have a disproportionately large impact on their ecosystem. When a keystone species is removed, it has drastic impacts on the ecosystem. Restoring bison to the landscape also helps to restore the prairie as a whole. Their presence has a cascading impact on the land, water, wildlife, plants, and insects of the prairie. As such, American Prairie’s bison restoration goals also support many of the organization’s other goals of ecological health for the grasslands of north central Montana. Learn more about our work restoring bison here.