The bison, once nearly extinct, has officially joined the bald eagle as a national symbol: The National Bison Legacy Act, designating the iconic animal as the U.S.’s national mammal, is now law.
With zero fanfare, President Barack Obama on May 9 signed the bill that had received congressional support on both sides of the aisle. The House of Representatives passed it on April 26 and the Senate on April 28.
Dozens of organizations had supported the initiative in a push that lasted several years, led by the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—more than 60 in total, according to the WCS in a news release. The goal was “to officially commemorate the ecological, cultural, historical and economic contribution of bison,” the WCS noted. Shepherding the bill through Congress were Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), and Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), and many others from both parties sponsored the legislation, the WCS said.
“The recognition of the buffalo as the National Mammal shows the cross-cultural stature of this iconic animal and for tribes will allow us to expand our work on reintroducing buffalo into our day to day lives,” said Jim Stone, executive director of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, in a statement from the WCS after the bill had made its way through Congress. “The buffalo has had a special place in the lives of tribal people since time immemorial and played important roles in our culture, religion and lifestyle. Now buffalo have become a part of the fabric of tribal life once again, created the foundation for an economic movement based on healthy food choices and provided conservation groups opportunities to expand the habitat for the species.”
Photo: Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The newly designated National Mammal roams on its traditional territory in the National Bison Range in Montana. President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law on Monday May 9.
“The bison is now officially the U.S. National Mammal, and rightfully so,” said Hoeven in a joint statement with Heinrich. ‘Bison are strong, proud and free, and a truly American icon with an incredible story. These noble creatures were brought back from the brink of extinction in our nation’s first great conservation effort. They are also an important spiritual symbol for many Native Americans. So, for all Americans, the bison is the right choice to be our national mammal. We look forward to honoring our new national mammal—hopefully with a live bison—at an induction ceremony in our nation’s capital.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior also noted Native connections to the majestic mammal in a list of “15 Facts About Our National Mammal: The American Bison,” by way of educating the public about the animal’s significance.
“6. The history of bison and Native Americans are intertwined. Bison have been integral to tribal culture, providing them with food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter and spiritual value. Established in 1992, the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council works with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national park lands to tribal lands.”
There is, of course, much more to the story than that. Bison were hunted and all but exterminated during the 19th century by way of cutting off the Plains Indians’ food supply.
Their population has risen from its extreme low of about a thousand animals in the early 20th century to today’s 30,000 wild bison out of a total of 500,000 (which includes those that have been cross-bred with cattle and serve as livestock), according to the Associated Press. The population rebound is partly thanks to tribal initiatives in conservation, as well as programs restoring bison to their lands.
The bison joins the oak, which was designated as the National Tree in 2004; the rose, the U.S.’s national floral emblem since 1998, and the bald eagle, which was made the national emblem in 1782 at the second Continental Congress, the WCS noted.
“Recognition of our new national mammal will bring a new source of pride for Americans—just like the bald eagle—and also bring greater attention to ongoing species recovery efforts,” said Heinrich. “Bison are a uniquely American animal and are the embodiment of American strength and resilience. The bison has been an important part of our culture for many generations, especially in New Mexico, across the West, and in Indian country. I hope that in my lifetime, thanks to a broad coalition of ranchers, wildlife advocates, and tribal nations, we will see bison return to the prominent place they once occupied in our nation’s shortgrass prairies.”