Stand up for facts and support PolitiFact.
Now is your chance to go on the record as supporting trusted, factual information by joining PolitiFact’s Truth Squad. Contributions or gifts to PolitiFact, which is part of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Poynter Institute, are tax deductible.
I would like to contribute
One of the Democratic candidates for Texas agriculture commissioner recently made a ranching claim that caught our eye.
Hugh Fitzsimons, who’s been endorsed by lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte, referred to her and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis in a lighthearted (if perhaps hastily typed) way in a Jan. 19, 2014, blog post:
"I’ve learned from my bison that is it the female buffalo that lead heard. It is time for Texas to have women leading our state, and Senators Davis and Van de Putte will make sure Texas does do better."
The ag commissioner race is crowded -- 3 Democrats and 5 Republicans have filed to run -- and bison leadership has not been a prime topic. Campaign issues the candidates have raised include the state’s water supply, federal government subsidies and regulations and managing the Texas Department of Agriculture budget.
But for a moment, we were curious about female leaders among the bison, commonly called buffalo.
Via email, Texas Bison Association president Roy Liedtke told us, "Yes, it is common that a bison herd have a ‘lead cow.’ This is usually an older cow and she is the leader of the herd. As with many undomesticated animals, the bulls are with the herd during breeding season and frequently spend the rest of the time alone in a bachelor herd."
We also checked with Donald Beard, superintendent of Caprock Canyons State Park, where the state’s buffalo roam. (The Official Bison Herd of the State of Texas began with stock saved by ranchers Charles and Molly Goodnight in 1878 and was donated to the state in 1996.)
By email, Beard told us, "Hugh is correct about the females’ status in the herd. North American bison are very much a matriarchal society. In fact, the males generally stay away from the main herd and will either be solo or in ‘bachelor’ groups until the breeding season. Once the rut begins, however, the large males return to the herd and fight each other for the right to breed. You will find males dominating the females during this time."
Main herds, Beard said by phone, will consist mainly of cows, calves, yearlings and perhaps 2- or 3-year-olds, including males. In the mating season, starting around late June and extending 60 to 90 days, the big bulls return to a herd and break it up into harem groups, he said.
At Yellowstone National Park, where 4,600 bison range, team leader Rick Wallen of the Bison Ecology and Management Program emailed us more detail: "The larger groups are mixed gender with adult females being the primary leaders of those groups. ... During the breeding season (July and August), some of the older bulls will join the cow/calf groups to contribute their genes to the next generation. I would argue that the older cows tend to lead those groups around the landscape and not the older males."
Fitzsimons told us by phone that those descriptions match his experience, with males splitting off and roaming as "satellite bulls" most of each year. The cows keep the main herd disciplined, and when the bulls return, the females maintain some control: "They choose the bull when it comes to mating," he said.
Bison find calmness, social stability and safety in herds, he said. "Not to anthropomorphize too much, but it really does make you think about the role of women."
Footnote: Females also lead herds of cattle, elk and elephants. The National Wildlife Federation -- in a Feb. 16, 2011, blog post on social organization that asked, "Does a gorilla want a strong central government? Does a bear?" -- listed bison, ants, African lions and sperm whales as species with female leadership roles. "Females rule in the animal kingdom," the post concluded.
Fitzsimons, making a point about putting women in charge, said that female buffalo lead the herd.
Bison are a matriarchal society, though female bison don’t lead the entire population. Adult males split off on their own until each mating season, when they come back to carve up the main herd for a couple months.
We’ll rate Fitzsimons’ statement as Mostly True.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
Hugh Fitzsimons campaign website blog post, "Campaign kick-off in San Antonio," Jan. 19, 2014
Email interview, excerpted, with Roy Liedtke, president, Texas Bison Association, Feb. 1, 2014
Email (excerpted) and telephone interview with Donald Beard, superintendent of Caprock Canyons State Park, Feb. 1-3, 2014
Email interview, excerpted, with Rick Wallen, team leader, Bison Ecology and Management Program, Yellowstone National Park, Feb. 2, 2014
Telephone interview with Hugh Fitzsimons, Feb. 6, 2014
National Wildlife Federation blog post, "President’s Day: How Animals Lead," Feb. 16, 2011
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.