VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

On National Bison Day, a Symbol We Can Be Proud Of

By John Calvelli

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

Our national emblem is the bald eagle.  This majestic bird, no matter how many times we’ve seen it on currency, t-shirts, or flags, still inspires awe in those who see it soaring overhead. It is an apt representation of our national identity.

On Saturday November 7, we will commemorate another icon that truly represents America, the mighty bison, on National Bison Day.

The Vote Bison Coalition, comprised of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association, Wildlife Conservation Society, and more than 50 other organizations, businesses and tribes, supports National Bison Day as a way to celebrate the bison as an American icon. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.
The Vote Bison Coalition, comprised of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association, Wildlife Conservation Society, and more than 50 other organizations, businesses and tribes, supports National Bison Day as a way to celebrate the bison as an American icon. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

National Bison Day is a day to celebrate the cultural, historical, ecological and economic contributions of bison to our American way of life.  The bison is every bit as American as the bald eagle, and no less majestic.  It should be celebrated as an American icon right alongside it.

Bison are strong.  They are loyal. They have attitude when they need it.

They are also resilient. There is a very compelling conservation story behind the American bison. Before being nearly wiped from existence by westward expansion, bison numbered in the tens of millions across most of North America, roaming from Oregon to New Jersey and from Alaska to Mexico. Due to overhunting, bison populations dwindled to the brink of extinction in the 19th century, down to approximately 1,000 individuals.

The bison, North America’s largest land mammal, once roamed the continent freely, helping sustain plains and prairie ecosystems as a keystone species through grazing, fertilization, trampling and other activities. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.
The bison, North America’s largest land mammal, once roamed the continent freely, helping sustain plains and prairie ecosystems as a keystone species through grazing, fertilization, trampling and other activities. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

Fearing the loss of a species that is uniquely American, President Teddy Roosevelt, William Hornaday, the first director of the Bronx Zoo, and other conservationists came together to form the American Bison Society (ABS) in an efforts to save the species from extinction. In 1907, the ABS shipped 15 bison by railroad from the Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge to repopulate the land. More shipments followed to Montana’s National Bison Range and South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park.

Today, the descendants of those bison largely make up the healthy population of wild bison living on public lands. This undertaking represents America’s first conservation success story and some even credit it for launching the modern species conservation movement.

National Bison Day gives us a reason to celebrate the other ways in which bison are essentially American. Many Native American tribes revere bison as a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage and maintain private bison herds on tribal lands throughout the West. Bison now exist in all 50 states in public and private herds, providing recreation opportunities for wildlife viewers in zoos, refuges, and parks and sustaining the multi-million-dollar bison ranching and production business.

The spiritual staff seen here represents all of the Intertribal Buffalo Council’s member tribes. It was taken in January 2003 near Miami, Okla. (Photo credit: Intertribal Buffalo Council)
The spiritual staff seen here represents all of the Intertribal Buffalo Council’s member tribes. It was taken in January 2003 near Miami, Okla. (Photo credit: Intertribal Buffalo Council)

Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota is one of the main sponsors of the National Bison Legacy Act, which would officially make bison our national mammal. Senator Hoeven recently spoke about bison as an animal that should inspire all Americans when they see it and one that should make us feel proud. That resonates with me and I think it describes exactly why the American bison is so deserving of its place as a national icon.

On November 7, join me in celebrating National Bison Day and all the ways bison represent our national identity, our history, and our culture. Just as the bald eagle soars above the American plain, the mighty bison rumbles across it; a national symbol worthy of our admiration.


John Calvelli, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a member of the Vote Bison Coalition steering committee.