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Red, White, and Bison: This Iconic Animal Should be Named the National Mammal of the United States

By John Calvelli

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

This weekend, Americans will spend the 4th of July thinking of the things that make the United States great. Of course, that means independence and freedom, and probably barbecues and fireworks as well. But another of those quintessentially great things about America is the bison, an animal that has for too long gone unrecognized as the national icon that it is.

Bison – our largest land mammal – have unparalleled historical, cultural, economic, and ecological significance to the U.S.

American bison in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Photo by Jeff Burrell ©WCS.
American bison in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Photo by Jeff Burrell ©WCS.

Once ranging from Oregon to New Jersey and Alaska to Mexico, bison herds inspired awe in western explorers, were integrally linked with the economic, physical, and spiritual lives of Native Americans, and are a symbol of America’s history. As WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society) works to restore bison in its historic range, we can also appreciate everything it contributes to today’s society.

Also known as buffalo, we recognize these magnificent animals from childhood stories tracing the settlement of the American West. We remember them from paintings by artists like James Perry Wilson, who captured bison herds in the Great Plains for dioramas featured in the American Museum of Natural History.

Recognizing the bison’s remarkable history on our continent, Democratic and Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation on June 29 to officially recognize bison as the national mammal of the United States.

American bison bulls grazing by the river at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.
American bison bulls grazing by the river at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

The bipartisan National Bison Legacy Act, led by Reps. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Kristi Noem (R-SD) and José Serrano (D-NY), acknowledges the cultural, economic, historical and ecological contributions of America’s largest land mammal.

It has drawn support of more than 50 diverse entities, including Native Americans, conservationists, businesses, bison producers, and others that are part of the Vote Bison Coalition.

It’s no surprise that bison have reached iconic status. Before nearly being wiped from existence, vast herds of bison once roamed North America freely in the tens of millions – helping sustain plains and prairie ecosystems through grazing, fertilization, trampling, and other activities. As my WCS colleague and leading bison conservationist Keith Aune has said, “few other animals have had such a far-reaching and lasting ecological impact.”

The story of the bison almost ended in tragedy. The species dwindled to fewer than a thousand animals by the early 1900s due to unregulated hunting as the American West was settled.

Fourteen bison were placed into two steel express cars on November 24th, 1913, for shipping on the 25th from New York City to Hot Springs, South Dakota. Photo ©WCS.
Fourteen bison were placed into two steel express cars on November 24th, 1913, for shipping on the 25th from New York City to Hot Springs, South Dakota. Photo ©WCS.

They recovered from the brink of extinction in the early 20th century after President Theodore Roosevelt, other political leaders, ranchers, and conservationists (including Bronx Zoo founding director William Hornaday), collaborated to help repopulate the American plains with this grand species.

This effort is recognized as the first great conservation success story in our nation’s history. Bison rebounded in the century to follow and can be found today in all 50 states in both public and private herds.

Bison production on private ranches now contributes significantly to our economy. The total value of privately owned bison on more than 2,600 ranches across the country was estimated at $280 million in 2013. Grazed naturally on the open plains, bison provide both a sustainable and healthy meat source and good jobs.

For centuries, bison also shaped the lifestyle and culture of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains area and revered this animal as a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage. Over 60 tribes are working to restore bison to Native lands in South Dakota, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana, and other states.

In September 2015, dignitaries from U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations signed a treaty—the first among them in more than 150 years—to establish intertribal alliances for cooperation in the restoration of American buffalo on Tribal/First Nations Reserves or co-managed lands within the U.S. and Canada.  Photo by ©Stephen Legault.
In September 2015, dignitaries from U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations signed a treaty—the first among them in more than 150 years—to establish intertribal alliances for cooperation in the restoration of American buffalo on Tribal/First Nations Reserves or co-managed lands within the U.S. and Canada. Photo by ©Stephen Legault.

For the last few years, leaders in the U.S. Senate have passed a bipartisan resolution to officially commemorate National Bison Day on the first Saturday in November. This special day of recognition continues to grow every year as more and more Americans participate in activities designed to highlight the many ways bison are central to our national heritage and identity. The passage of the National Bison Legacy Act will provide the bison with the official designation it richly deserves as our national mammal.

That this quintessentially American mammal has brought together Democratic and Republican lawmakers is a potent measure of the bison’s revered status in our nation. The Democrats have the donkey, the Republicans the elephant but all Americans should claim the bison as their national mammal. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than to support the National Bison Legacy Act.

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John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society).

 

Comments

  1. Hannah
    Washington
    July 9, 2015, 1:14 am

    Great article! Thank you so much. Bison are my absolute favorite animal. So, whenever I see a highlight piece, like this article, it makes me extremely happy!

  2. Lawrence Scrima
    Aurora CO
    July 7, 2015, 10:49 pm

    Besides the Bison, the Grey Wolf (domesticated to dogs) and the Horse must be included as National Mammals, since they also evolved in North America, nearly became extinct here (horse actually did become extinct here until the Spaniards re-introduced them to their native land), and both the wolf and the horse have provided perhaps the most fundamental aid to humans during our evolution, hunting, transportation, safety and companionship! Therefore the Grey Wolf and the Horse are American Icons and both must be preserved and have National Mammal classification, and the Protection of USA government and citizens in perpetuity! VIP to sign and share this: petition:http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/550/700/285/

  3. Lechoix
    July 7, 2015, 4:35 pm

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bison_skull_pile,_ca1870.png

    In the middle of 1800th’s, it was a POLICY of american government – to exterminate bison’s total head of livestock, to deprive the Indians of livelihood. Bisons were the main source of food and livelihood for Indian tribes inhabiting the center lands of the North America,

    There is a picture, showing bison’s exctinction area at that period of time:

    http://img-fotki.yandex.ru/get/6613/161056488.76/0_97b53_73e3aae2_orig.jpg

    Indeed, there are no limits of hypocrisy of the Anglo-Saxon “civilization”,

  4. Erik van Lennep
    (currently) Catalunya
    July 5, 2015, 1:53 pm

    Nice piece, and as a fan of the bison, I am heartened to read it. One little factoid that is all too easy to gloss over was skirted in this article as well.

    The passive voice used to describe the near-demise of the bison obscures the fact that it came close to extinction as a result of policy in Washington DC.

    This policy had the express intention of destroying Native Americans by destroying the basis for their economy: starve them out.

    It was intended as genocide, and very near succeeded.