The American bison is now the first National Mammal of the United States, as stated by The National Bison Legacy Act, passed in the House on Tuesday, April 27 and is expected to get Senate approval this week.
The recognition of the bison, is a recognition of a conservation success story, and it’s a rare bipartisan moment in Washington D.C.
“No other indigenous species tells America’s story better than this noble creature,” Rep. Lacy Clay, a progressive Missouri Democrat who sponsored the bill that passed the Republican-controlled Congress, said in a statement recently. “The American bison is an enduring symbol of strength, Native American culture and the boundless western wildness.”
But aside from the symbolism, not much will change about how we Americans interact with bison. The law has a provision saying as much: Native Americans can still hunt them, ranchers will still ranch them, zoos can still house them, and, people can still eat them.
“None of that is necessarily a bad thing”, said John Calvelli, an executive vice president with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Ranchers, wildlife experts, politicians and Native American groups were actually pretty much in agreement that this animal needs to be honored. It’s just that every group has its own idea about how to do that, and that’s fine. Bison are a connection to healthy communities,” Calvelli said. “This law brings this all together into something that is a bit more coherent. Maybe we’ll all feel a bit more patriotic when we eat a bison burger,” he added.
In the early 1800s, there were about 30 million bison in the United States, stretching from Alaska to the Mexican border. By the time Congress made it illegal to kill bison in 1894, there were fewer than 1,000. Teddy Roosevelt, a frontiersman in his own right, led a conservation effort to nurse them back to health at the Bronx Zoo and ship them out west. It worked. Today there are bison in all 50 states and close to 5,000 in Yellowstone National Park.
It’s still illegal to shoot and kill bison without a permit. The exception to that latter rule is Native American lands. Ranchers, wildlife experts and Native American groups are working to increase the number of bison on reservations to help these communities return to their ancestral tradition of hunting and eating bison. They’ve identified about 1 million acres of reservation land they want to bring bison onto for this purpose.
When the bison and the Native Americans were run off the frontier, so was Native American culture and their contributions to building this nation. This bill is an effort to pause and honor that.
Now, when school children learn about their new national mammal, they’ll also learn about its relationship to the conquering of the West. It’s not always an easy story to hear, but it’s an important one, say its supporters.
If you would like to see bison, you can go visit Yellowstone, or you can just go to your local zoo. Bison are in zoos in 49 out of 50 states, including in Washington D.C. For the first time in more than a century, the National Zoo welcomed back bison in 2014, two females named Wilma and Zora.
Happy Humpday (^_^)