Our nation has a National Bird (bald eagle), a National Tree (oak) and a National Flower (rose) ... but no national mammal. A bill has been introduced in the U. S. Senate to fill that gap, and the proposal would designate a large animal that's a big visitor draw in several national parks. What's being suggested for the "national mammal of the United States"? The American bison.
On June 11, 2014, U.S. Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and John Hoeven (R-ND) "led a bipartisan group of Senators in introducing the National Bison Legacy Act, legislation that would officially adopt the North American bison as the national mammal of the United States." A companion bill, H.R. 3400, was introduced in the House on October 30, 2013.
"One of our most iconic and enduring symbols"
“The bison has played an important role in our nation’s history, holds spiritual significance to Native American cultures, and remains one of our most iconic and enduring symbols,” Johnson said. “Bison production has also become an important agricultural endeavor in South Dakota and throughout the country as demand continues to grow. By adopting the North American bison as our national mammal, the National Bison Legacy Act recognizes their historical, cultural, ecological, and economic significance.”
“North Dakota’s history is closely associated with the bison, largely because of the influence of President Teddy Roosevelt’s early visits to our state,” Hoeven said. “His efforts to protect these majestic animals helped to retrieve them from the brink of extinction and established them as one of the most powerful and inspiring symbols of the American spirit, for Native Americans and settlers alike. I can think of no more noble an animal to name as the official mammal of the United States.”
Bison are popular with park visitors
According to information from Yellowstone National Park, "Yellowstone bison are exceptional because they comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land and are among the few bison herds that have not been hybridized through interbreeding with cattle. Unlike most other herds, this population has thousands of individuals that are allowed to roam relatively freely over the expansive landscape of Yellowstone National Park and some nearby areas of Montana."
Will anyone oppose the bills?
Will there be any organized opposition to the current bison campaign? If so, it might arise from that last sentence in the above quote from Yellowstone's website.
Allowing bison from the park to "roam relatively freely" has been the source of decades of controversy due to concerns by the livestock industry that bison might spread brucellosis to cattle. Perhaps recently announced discussions on the subject will help resolve the issue, but regardless of the outcome of those meetings, the proposed designation of bison as the national mammal would add no new legal protection for the species; it's simply a symbolic gesture.
A rather eclectic coalition of some fifty organizations, ranging from wildlife groups and zoos to commercial buffalo ranchers and even a restaurant chain that serves bison burgers has been organized to rally support for the bill. Votebison.org says "The bison is ready for the big leagues. It's an animal we can stand behind as national mammal," and is urging Americans to contact their elected representatives to support the bills.
Will names matter?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in stirring up widespread support is the confusion in the minds of some Americans about which animal is being promoted.
Bison are often referred to as "buffalo," a term encouraged by decades of popular usage by Hollywood and western writers. That word even appears throughout an article on U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service website titled "American buffalo, (Bison bison)" that was last updated in 1998.
The website for Wind Cave National Park explains that "Bison are part of the family Bovidae, to which Asian buffalo, African buffalo and domestic cattle and goats belong. Because American bison resembled in some ways old world buffalo (Asian and African buffalo), early explorers to North America began to call them buffalo. Although it is a misnomer, the name buffalo is still used interchangeably with bison."
A chance for bipartianship?
Perhaps the greatest value of the bison designation campaign is the chance for politicians to actually rally bipartisan support for a cause. There are signs that could be the case, since last October the U.S. Senate passed, by unanimous consent, a resolution designating November 2, 2013, as National Bison Day.
The National Bison Legacy Act (S. 2464) shows promising signs of interest on both sides of the aisle, since it has been cosponsored by seven Democrats and five Republicans. It remains to be seen if the larger membership will be buffaloed by the idea of bipartisanship on the bill.
You can read the full text of the bill on Senator Johnson's website.