Bison anticipated to become official US mammal, bill awaits Obama’s signature

© Lucy Nicholson
The bison appears on two state flags and old nickels, but the largest land mammal of North America isn’t officially recognized as a national symbol. That, however, is expected to change since Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act.

The Vote Bison Coalition, made up of over 60 organizations, tribes and businesses, is celebrating after a four-year effort to raise the bison’s level of recognition and prominence closer to that of the bald eagle. Also known as the buffalo, the roaming ton of brown fur is set to become the national mammal, on par with the oak, the national tree, and the rose, the national flower.

“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,” Jim Stone, Executive Director of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, said in a statement. “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.”

The bill, passed Tuesday in the House and December in the Senate, does not designate any new legal protections for the bison, but supporters hope the honor will inspire people to help better conserve the beast’s population and habitats.

Some 30 to 60 million bison are believed to have trampled North America, providing an ecological service in the process, before the mid-1800s when American pioneers wiped out nearly all of them. Now there are 30,000 of them in the US, some in every single state, following an early 20th century effort by President Teddy Roosevelt and the American Bison Society to move 15 of them by train from the Bronx Zoo to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.

“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,” Dave Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association, said in a statement.

Although not an official holiday, the fifth annual National Bison Day this year is on November 5, as it falls on the first Saturday of that month every year.