American idol: bison have graced U.S. currency and are the symbol of at least two federal agencies, yet their numbers in the wild are a mere shadow of their former strength.
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher, WCS.
The bald eagle is well-known as an American symbol ? it has been the national bird since independence ? but now conservationists and other groups want to give the United States a national mammal, too: the bison.
"The bison is quintessentially American," said John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the groups supporting the nomination. "What better way to celebrate the bison's remarkable history in U.S. culture than to make it the national mammal?"
The WCS, Intertribal Buffalo Council and National Bison Association recently launched a campaign to make the American bison the country's official mammal, and Sens. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., have introduced the National Bison Legacy Act at the request of a coalition of bison producers, tribal representatives and conservationists who would celebrate the first Thursday of each November as National Bison Day.
The coalition's campaign asks the public to "vote for bison" and highlights the many ways bison have shaped America's history, economy, culture and landscape. The public will have the opportunity to follow the national campaign and get involved in the legislative process by visiting www.votebison.org.
The bison, informally called a buffalo, is North America's largest land mammal, with adult males typically weighing up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms). Some 30 million to 60 million of the animals once roamed the Great Plains. But by the early 1900s, after decades of hunting, bison numbered less than 1,100.
In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt, William Hornaday of WCS (then the New York Zoological Society) and others convened a group of diverse stakeholders at the Bronx Zoo in New York City and formed the American Bison Society. The society developed a new conservation ethic and helped save bison from extinction. Two years later, the society sent 15 Bronx–born bison to the first big-game refuge in the United States: the Wichita Reserve Bison Refuge.
Today bison number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States and are found in state and national parks, wildlife refuges and on tribal and private lands.
The National Bison Legacy Act declares that bison are integrally linked to Native American culture, are a keystone species that benefit grassland ecosystems, hold significant value for private producers and rural communities, and are a symbol of the American West.
"Recent discoveries by western scientists, combined with ancient traditional knowledge, have described many important relationships that large herds of bison maintained with other animals such as birds, amphibians and prairie dogs in a complete prairie system," WCS senior conservationist Keith Aune said in a statement. "Bison were a force of nature and served a key role in maintaining an entire ecosystem while providing important ecological services to mankind."