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With most of the primary elections completed for this cycle, another election is on the horizon… for the United States’ national mammal. A grassroots organization is lobbying for the bison to be named the national mammal, and recently a bipartisan group of Senators introduced the National Bison Legacy Act, legislation that would officially adopt the North American bison as the national mammal of the United States. They believe that the bison is iconic enough to join the bald eagle as a symbol of the United States. Supporters of the designation believe that it “will raise the national profile of bison to the benefit of all stakeholders including producers, conservation organizations, and tribes, while also honoring our national heritage.”
Bison are the largest land mammal in the country and helped to shape the Great Plains and the lives of the Native Americans who lived there. Their significance and value has changed through the decades. Native Americans depended on bison for their livelihood. With westward expansion and European settlement, bison were seen as a source of goods; first for their meat, then for their meat and hides, and finally just for their hides. Some thought the supply of bison was endless, but by 1890 they were on the brink of extinction. The American Bison Society estimates that the population went from 30 million to just over 1,000.
Protection measures were enacted in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and both Yellowstone National Park and the Bronx Zoo were working to establish bison preserves. The Bronx Zoo relocated 15 bison to New York in 1907. Through conservation efforts, today the wild bison population hovers right around 20,000 animals. Space is often cited as a barrier to increase their population numbers. Bison are prairie grazers, and much of their native habitat has been altered by humans for agriculture and pastoralism.
Fun Fact: Although bison are commonly referred to as “buffalo,” biologically speaking, they’re birds of a different feather. Buffalo (i.e. Cape buffalo and water buffalo) are native only to Africa and Asia, whereas bison are native to North America. Both are members of the Bovidae family.
The National Bison Legacy Act, which would officially designate the bison as the national mammal, does not provide any additional conservation measures. Efforts to reintroduce bison herds are often met with opposition. Livestock producers and others have filed lawsuits to stop free-roaming bison, arguing they tear down fences, spread disease and compete with domestic cattle for grass. Some herds are affected by a virus called brucellosis, whichpeople can catch from eating tainted meat and develop prolonged flulike symptoms.
However, they are raised as livestock in every state with at least 200,000 commercial bison across the country. According to the USDA, the bison market has expanded in the United States, from less than 18,000 bison sold commercially in 2000 to around 50,000 in 2007. While this is not necessarily a conservation measure, it may help ensure the future of the species.
Though there are no other vocal campaigns to designate a different species as the national mammal, some think that different species should be considered. Bears and wolves top the list of those species that should be under consideration. Like the bison, they have storied conservation histories and have returned from the brink of extinction. The debate has yet to be settled, as congress has yet to vote on the bill.
Follow the progress of the bill and learn more about designating a national mammal at http://www.votebison.org/.
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