Yellowstone National Park: Are they Bison or Buffalo?

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In Yellowstone National Park, are the large hairy animals roaming the landscape called bison or buffalo? Well, some people call them buffalo, and others call them bison. Who’s right? Well, everyone’s right. The National Park Service states on their website, “In North America, both “bison” and “buffalo” refer to the American bison. Generally, “buffalo” is used informally; “bison” is preferred for more formal or scientific purposes.” So there you have it. You can call them buffalo or you can call them bison, whichever name you prefer. Most native westerners call them buffalo, and have been ever since the early pioneers first laid eyes on these magnificent animals. They looked similar to buffalo found on other continents, so the early pioneers called them “buffalo”. This name stuck, even though technically they are known as bison in the scientific community.

Vernicular Name
An animal’s “vernicular name” refers to the popular name given to animals that is understood by general society. The vernicular name does not have to be “scientifically correct”, but rather simply understood by the general public as to what animal you are referring to. Therefore, with bison (whose scientific name is actually “Bison bison”), the vernicular name for the bison is BUFFALO. Another example is the Mountain Goat. The mountain goat is actually not a goat, but the vernicular name “mountain goat” is completely understood by the general population as to what animal you are referring to. Other examples include the Lake Trout (which is actually a Char), or Antelope (which actually is a Pronghorn and not a true antelope), or Brook Trout (which is actually a type of Char and not a trout). Therefore, whether you use the animals vernicular name (popular name) or their scientific name, it’s all good and both are correct.

So even though the term “buffalo” is a kind of slang word for bison, it is socially acceptable to call them by that name in North America. This means that the famous Buffalo Bill Cody, the towns of Buffalo Montana, Buffalo Wyoming, Buffalo New York and the 25+ other towns throughout the United States named Buffalo, and the Buffalo Bills professional football team that has a buffalo on their helmet, and the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone National Park, the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park and all the other Buffalo Jump State Parks throughout the west, can all rest easier knowing that calling a bison a “buffalo” is just fine.

And here’s something else that’s quite interesting… Did you know that according to, a group of buffalo can be called a “troop”, a “gang”, a “thunder” an “obstinacy” or a “herd”? We’re going to stick with “herd”, but you’re free to choose whichever name you prefer!

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