The Bison: A National Symbol for All Americans

By John Calvelli

The first in a series of blogs by Calvelli celebrating the history and conservation of the American Bison.

When Kai Ryssdal announced on National Public Radio’s daily financial round-up Marketplace recently that “political gridlock is over,” he wasn’t talking about health care, the national debt, or immigration policy. He was referring to legislation to make the North American bison our National Mammal.

To celebrate the bison’s central place in the history and culture of the United States, conservationists, bison producers, sportsmen, and Native American tribes came together this spring to craft and advance the National Bison Legacy Act.

American Bison - ©

This legislation, introduced last May jointly in the U.S. Senate by Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota, currently enjoys equal numbers of co-sponsors from the Democratic and Republican parties, along with Independent Joe Lieberman. A companion bill was introduced in the House last week by Reps Clay (D-MO), Fortenberry (R-NE), Serrano (D-NY) and Noem (R-SD). The Act designates the American bison as our National Mammal and recognizes the first Thursday day in November as National Bison Day.

It would be hard to think of a mammal more symbolic of our nation than the bison. We know them from childhood stories tracing the settlement of the American west. We know them from our textbooks and paintings by artists like James Perry Wilson, whose soaring dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History capture the vast herds that once roamed our Great Plains. In short, bison – or buffalo as they are popularly known – have acquired iconic status, and for good reason.

Bulls Grazing in the Wild - Julie Larsen Maher WCS

The largest land mammal in North America, the buffalo is also one of the oldest, having roamed our continent for thousands of years. At the time of our founding, buffalo numbered over 30 million. They roamed from the Saskatchewan to the Rio Grande and from California all the way to the Atlantic coast.  And yet by 1900, unchecked hunting and disease had brought about the near extinction of an animal that had survived since the Pleistocene era.

In the span of a few decades the population of buffalo in North America shrunk precipitously to fewer than 1,200 animals. As avid hunter and future president Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “Never before were so many large animals of one species destroyed in so short a time.”

The New York Zoological Society, as the Wildlife Conservation Society was then known, was five years old at the turn of the 20th century, established by gamesmen like Roosevelt who believed deeply in the importance of conserving the wild lands and species of North America. During his first term as president, Roosevelt worked to create the American Bison Society with William Hornaday, founding director of the NYZS’s newly-created Bronx Zoo.

American Bison Being shipped from the Bronx Zoo to Wichita - WCS

Between 1907 and 1913, the Society worked to transfer captive buffalo populations from the Bronx Zoo to the Western plains of the United States. With transport secured by gifts from the American Express and Wells Fargo companies, some 75 animals traveled west by rail to protected ranges in Oklahoma, Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. More than a century later, due to the efforts of WCS and other stakeholders in the preservation of this great icon, bison have rebounded to a half-million animals, including 20,000 in the wild.

Conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society have joined with bison producers and tribal groups to work with the governments of the United States, Mexico and Canada to better coordinate bison management and genetic diversity across federal lands. The total value of privately-owned bison on more than 4,000 bison ranches in the U.S. was estimated to exceed $250 million in 2011. This trend bodes well for bison ranches in states like South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, and Colorado, where bison production creates good jobs and provides a low-fat and sustainable meat source.

In the meantime, at a moment of great political upheaval, with our two national parties at loggerheads on so many issues, the National Mammal legislation is a great example of how we can pull together on issues of common concern. While we may not regain the tens of millions of bison that roamed the continent 200 years ago, we can conserve a magnificent species that holds a timeless place in our history, our culture, and our imagination.

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.

American Bison - Julie Larsen Maher WCS

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