When President Obama looked through the papers on his desk in May 2016, he discovered one from Congress asking him to sign a bill making the bison the official national mammal of the United States. Days later, he signed the bill, elevating the iconic bison as the country’s mammal.
It’s been 234 years since the American bald eagle became the nation’s emblem, chosen for its strength, longevity and the fact it is native to the U.S. This time around, Congress pushed for the bison because of its historic and current ecological, economical and cultural value.
For centuries, the bison has played an integral part of Native Americans’ lives for food, shelter, clothing and spirituality. But it’s also part of a larger national story of destruction and redemption. After a mass slaughter of tens of millions of bison on the Great Plains in the late 1800s, conservationists in the early 20th century spurred on the nation’s first efforts to successfully recover a species teetering on the precipice of extinction. While only 23 were left in 1916 in Yellowstone National Park, more than 6,000 roam inside the park’s boundaries today.
Jim Stone, executive director for the Intertribal Buffalo Council, supported the act, emphasizing the important role the mammal has played in the nation’s history.
“The buffalo is an iconic species in this country,” Stone told KOTA Territory News. “You have a bald eagle, which is recognized as a symbol, and it’s very deserving of that position, yet the buffalo had more to do with the United States, pre–discovery, than the bald eagle in some senses. It provided everything for the Native American’s way of life.”
The Intertribal Buffalo Council, based in Rapid City, S.D., and made up of more than 60 Native American tribes, has worked to restore the animal to tribal lands.
Today, the bison is thriving, roaming on more than 1,000,000 acres of tribal lands. Eleven states manage state-owned herds. There also are 116,110 living on private lands, creating jobs and providing a healthy meat source for the commercial market, according to language in the bill.
The bison has already been adopted by three states as the official mammal or animal of those states. It’s on two state flags and has appeared on the official seal of the Department of the Interior since 1912.
“What a great milestone for an animal that has played a central role in America’s history and culture, that helped shape the Great Plains and the lifestyle of Native Americans, and that, today, lives in all 50 states,” the Wildlife Conservation Society posted on its website.