Book Review: American Bison
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up American Bison: A Natural History by Dale E. Lott, other than a lot of information about bison, obviously. I kind of thought it would be a dry, technical volume, which I wouldn’t have minded too much, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a broad, accessible summary of bison ecology and behavior.
The author not only has done a large amount of research on bison behavior, but he grew up in and around the National Bison Range in Montana, with a father and grandfather who worked managing the herds. He provides a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and even loving voice for his topic, without seeming overly sentimental or dogmatic about any of his subjects.
The book is organized into several sections, including ones on behavior, biology, history, conservation, and other organisms’ interactions and influence on the bison. In each section he gave some basic, general information about the topic he was pursuing and then went into detail on just a few specific areas in that larger subject. I appreciated this approach, because he provided the the reader a basic foundation to work on as well as really getting into the science and providing information that even people familiar with bison might not know, without overwhelming the reader with more facts than they could remember or too much jargon for the layperson.
The strength of this book was really in its accessibility to the topic (without dumbing down too much) and in its breadth. It lives up to its subtitle “A Natural History” in that it really attempts, and mostly succeeds, in providing a relatively complete picture of the species, past, present, and potential future. I would recommend this book for the casual bison lover looking to learn more, and to anyone interested in wildlife ecology in general, but who maybe doesn’t know much about the basics. It provides a good introduction to larger ecological and conservation concepts as part of the case study of bison, but in a way that is broadly applicable the field as a whole.
One last thing I particularly noticed and appreciated was that while the author did talk about his own research a lot, he included research from other sources and was careful to talk about ways in which the research differed. This was most notable in the section on behavior, where bison behavior varies greatly between several populations that were studied (this seems to be due to resource availability). I think it’s important to show that a species is not always homogenous across its range, and that different studies may show different results, for a variety of reasons.
“American Bison” is not a perfect book, but it is well-written, informative, and a fairly quick read for a popular science book. I wouldn’t recommend it for someone already moderately well versed about bison ecology, as it is unlikely they would find any new information in it, or for someone looking for a lot of detail about any one aspect of bison natural history (such as the history of bison hunting or their digestive biology). But it’s great for the beginner enthusiast and even for more serious students of ecology who have general knowledge but not much specific knowledge about this American icon.