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Honoring an American Icon with National Bison Day

By John Calvelli

 [Note: This is the fourth in a series of blogs by Calvelli celebrating the history and conservation of the American Bison.]

At a time when lawmakers rarely agree on much, the bison, a quintessentially American mammal, is drawing support from both sides of the aisle in Congress in an increasingly rare example of bipartisan collaboration.

On October 30, 2013, the U.S. Senate passed, by unanimous consent, a resolution officially designating November 2, 2013, as National Bison Day.  The resolution earned the bipartisan support of 25 Senators – representing a quarter of the U.S. Senate.  In passing the resolution, Democratic and Republican leaders have teamed up with close to 50 diverse groups in an initiative called the Vote Bison Coalition. The group represents bison producers, Native Americans, conservationists, educational institutions, recreationists, zoological institutions, health organizations, and businesses.

An American Bison bull in Yellowstone National Park. (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)
An American Bison bull in Yellowstone National Park. (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)

U.S. Sens. Michael Enzi (R-WY) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) introduced the resolution in late September, emphasizing the historical, cultural, ecological, and economic significance of the bison to the United States. North America’s largest mammal, a symbol of resilience, has appeared on U.S. currency, the seal of the Department of the Interior, and two state flags. In addition, bison have been adopted as the state mammal of Wyoming and the state animal of Oklahoma, and Kansas.

Among the many attributes of the buffalo – as bison are commonly known – is the role this species has played in the economic and spiritual lives of Native American tribes, many of which are now seeking the restoration of bison to tribal land. Bison also benefit grassland ecosystems and are a symbol of the American West.

The bison once boasted numbers   between 30 and 60 million in a range that extended from central Canada to Mexico. However, by the late nineteenth century, the mass slaughter of bison with the settlement of the American West brought the species to the brink of extinction. With only about 1,000 wild and captive bison remaining in North America in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt; William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Society’s (now the Wildlife Conservation Society’s) Bronx Zoo; and others assembled a group of diverse stakeholders to form the American Bison Society to save these great mammals from extinction. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of bison in state and national parks, wildlife refuges, and on tribal and private lands.

A bison herd in Genesee Park, Colorado. (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)
A bison herd in Genesee Park, Colorado. (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)

The Vote Bison Coalition celebrated the inaugural National Bison Day last November. This year, with growing support from members of the U.S. Congress, a full schedule of events are planned across the nation – with a special recognition of this iconic species in the western states where it continues to roam.

National Bison Day events kicked off with a reception on Capitol Hill this past Wednesday.

Nearly 100 years after the American Bison Society and the New York Zoological Society helped bring bison to Wind Cave National Park, Native Americans will be among the many revelers honoring bison this weekend.

A pair of American Bison at the Bronx Zoo (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)
A pair of American Bison at the Bronx Zoo (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)

In Kansas, folks celebrating National Bison Day on Saturday will simultaneously observe the start of Native American Heritage Month with fun, educational events including bison artifacts on display and the Winds of the Past exhibit honoring Native Americans at the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

Bison experts will be stationed at informational booths throughout the day at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Patrons can also view the film “American Serengeti” while there.

At the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, North Dakota, museum members will receive a 20 percent discount on gift shop purchases (there’s a 10 percent discount for the general public) this Saturday. In neighboring South Dakota, the Museum of the American Bison in Rapid City will feature a buffalo chili cook-off, presentations from bison experts, craft activities and a traditional Native dancer.

Also on Saturday at the Bronx Zoo, a Bronx Zoo bison keeper and Friends of the Zoo docents will be at the bison exhibit teaching patrons about this American icon. These events are also a great opportunity for children to learn about wildlife conservation (to view other upcoming National Bison Day events, visit  http://votebison.org/events).

We encourage everyone to mark November 2nd on their calendars as a day to re-connect to this enduring symbol of America’s natural heritage. A quintessentially American mammal, the bison has fortunately brought together Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate, which is no small feat. Now that’s something to celebrate.

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John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Chair of the Executive Committee of the International Conservation Partnership (ICP), which is comprised of representatives from the major global U.S. conservation organizations.