By John Calvelli
[Note: This is the sixth in a series of blogs by Calvelli celebrating the history and conservation of the American Bison.]
This weekend, Americans will spend the 4th of July thinking of the things that make the United States great. Of course, that means independence and freedom, and probably barbecues and fireworks as well. But another of those quintessentially great things about America is the bison, an animal that has for too long gone unrecognized as the national icon that it is.
Bison – our largest land mammal – have unparalleled historical, cultural, economic, and ecological significance to the U.S.
Once ranging from Oregon to New Jersey and Alaska to Mexico, bison herds inspired awe in western explorers, were integrally linked with the economic, physical, and spiritual lives of Native Americans, and are a symbol of America’s history. As WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society) works to restore bison in its historic range, we can also appreciate everything it contributes to today’s society.
Also known as buffalo, we recognize these magnificent animals from childhood stories tracing the settlement of the American West. We remember them from paintings by artists like James Perry Wilson, who captured bison herds in the Great Plains for dioramas featured in the American Museum of Natural History.
Recognizing the bison’s remarkable history on our continent, Democratic and Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation on June 29 to officially recognize bison as the national mammal of the United States.
The bipartisan National Bison Legacy Act, led by Reps. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Kristi Noem (R-SD) and José Serrano (D-NY), acknowledges the cultural, economic, historical and ecological contributions of America’s largest land mammal.
It has drawn support of more than 50 diverse entities, including Native Americans, conservationists, businesses, bison producers, and others that are part of the Vote Bison Coalition.
It’s no surprise that bison have reached iconic status. Before nearly being wiped from existence, vast herds of bison once roamed North America freely in the tens of millions – helping sustain plains and prairie ecosystems through grazing, fertilization, trampling, and other activities. As my WCS colleague and leading bison conservationist Keith Aune has said, “few other animals have had such a far-reaching and lasting ecological impact.”
The story of the bison almost ended in tragedy. The species dwindled to fewer than a thousand animals by the early 1900s due to unregulated hunting as the American West was settled.
They recovered from the brink of extinction in the early 20th century after President Theodore Roosevelt, other political leaders, ranchers, and conservationists (including Bronx Zoo founding director William Hornaday), collaborated to help repopulate the American plains with this grand species.
This effort is recognized as the first great conservation success story in our nation’s history. Bison rebounded in the century to follow and can be found today in all 50 states in both public and private herds.
Bison production on private ranches now contributes significantly to our economy. The total value of privately owned bison on more than 2,600 ranches across the country was estimated at $280 million in 2013. Grazed naturally on the open plains, bison provide both a sustainable and healthy meat source and good jobs.
For centuries, bison also shaped the lifestyle and culture of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains area and revered this animal as a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage. Over 60 tribes are working to restore bison to Native lands in South Dakota, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana, and other states.
For the last few years, leaders in the U.S. Senate have passed a bipartisan resolution to officially commemorate National Bison Day on the first Saturday in November. This special day of recognition continues to grow every year as more and more Americans participate in activities designed to highlight the many ways bison are central to our national heritage and identity. The passage of the National Bison Legacy Act will provide the bison with the official designation it richly deserves as our national mammal.
That this quintessentially American mammal has brought together Democratic and Republican lawmakers is a potent measure of the bison’s revered status in our nation. The Democrats have the donkey, the Republicans the elephant but all Americans should claim the bison as their national mammal. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than to support the National Bison Legacy Act.
John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society).