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Bison: the official US icon

Bison named the official national mammal of the United States

President Obama has signed the National Bison Legacy Act, officially making bison the national mammal of the United States.

Official national mammal

The value of bison

The bill’s passage is the culmination of a four-year effort by the Vote Bison coalition, a group of more than 60 organisations, tribes and businesses led by the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association and Wildlife Conservation Society, to commemorate the ecological, cultural, historical and economic contribution of bison.

As the national mammal, bison will now join the oak (national tree, designated 2004), the rose (national floral emblem, designated 1998) and the bald eagle (national emblem, designated 1782) as official symbols of America.

‘The National Mammal declaration not only recognizes the historic role of bison in America, it celebrates the resurgence of bison as an important part of the American environment, diet, and an emerging part of the agricultural economy.’

Executive Director of the National Bison Association

A sacred symbol

Bison, often called buffalo by Native people, continue to sustain and provide cultural value to Native Americans and Indian Tribes. More than 60 tribes are working to restore bison to over 1,000,000 acres of Indian lands in South Dakota, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana and other states.

‘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.’

Executive Director of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council

Today, bison remain integral to the traditions and lifestyles of Native Americans through cultural practices, social ceremonies and religious rituals. Tribes are returning bison to Indian lands in order to regain lost culture, access locally available and healthy traditional food, expand economic potential for poor reservations and to right past wrongs against the Native American people related to the intentional decimation of bison herds.

Recently, 87 bison were transferred from Elk Island National Park in Canada to the ancestral bison territory of the Blackfeet Nation reservation near Browning, Montana, in a culturally and spiritually meaningful homecoming.

A national icon

The bison, North America’s largest land mammal, has an important role in America’s history, culture and economy.

Bison are profiled on US coins, portrayed on two state flags along with several federal and state emblems and featured on logos of sports teams, businesses and academic institutions across the USA. In addition, bison have been adopted as the state mammal of Wyoming and the state animal of Oklahoma and Kansas.

Before being nearly wiped from existence by westward expansion, bison roamed freely across most of North America, helping sustain plains and prairie ecosystems as a keystone species through foraging, fertilisation, trampling and other activities. Bison shaped the vegetation and landscape as they fed on and dispersed the seeds of grasses, sedges and forbs.

Several bird species adapted to or co-evolved with types of grasses and vegetation structures that had been, for millennia, grazed by millions of free-ranging bison. The Wildlife Conservation Society today works to support bison recovery in the American west, through the expansion of existing herds and reintroduction of bison to new large landscapes to avoid ecological extinction.

Before being nearly wiped from existence by westward expansion, bison ranged from Alaska to Mexico, from Oregon to New Jersey, and south as far as Georgia. Bison were hunted down to approximately 1,000 at the turn of the 20th century, and were brought back from the brink of extinction by a concerted effort of ranchers, conservationists and politicians to save the species.

A conservation first

The species is acknowledged as the first American conservation success story, having been brought back from the brink of extinction by a concerted effort of ranchers, conservationists, tribes and politicians to save the species in the early 20th century.

In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt and the American Bison Society began this effort by shipping 15 animals by train from the Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Soon after, bison were transferred to South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park.

This early campaign to spare the last few hundred bison evolved into the first major wildlife recovery in world history. The small population secured in states like South Dakota, Montana and Oklahoma spawned today’s 2,500 privately ranched herds of bison.

Bison now exist in all 50 states in public and private herds, sustaining a multi-million dollar sector of American agriculture.

While less than 5% of bison truly run wild these days, wherever they roam they help recover lost grasslands and biodiversity.

National Bison Day

For the past four years, the Vote Bison Coalition has joined people across the country to celebrate National Bison Day on the first Saturday of November.

Native American tribes, bison producers, conservationists, sportsmen and women, educators and other public and private partners commemorated the day by hosting events celebrating bison in their communities in dozens of states and participating on social media. The US Senate has for the past three years recognised National Bison Day with an official resolution.

‘Finally we are placing this symbolic creature in proper perspective by recognizing its many values to the American people both past and present. The passage of this bill not only recognizes the historic significance of bison but signals the beginning of a grand American adventure to carry out ecological, economic and cultural restoration of American bison into the future. The National Bison Legacy Act assures that bison stories will be shared each year to inspire future generations. The American bison truly stands out among all North American mammals and deserves to be our National Mammal.’

Senior conservationist at Wildlife Conservation Society

Click here to read the full text of the National Bison Legacy Act.

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