Those of us in the United States are probably familiar with the bald eagle as a symbol of strength and freedom. But did you know the U.S. has an official national mammal as well? The National Bison Legacy Act, signed into law in May 2016, officially declared the North American Bison as the U.S. National Mammal. Every November, AZA, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and other partners meet with Congressional representatives in observance of the federally-recognized National Bison Day. Several industry and nonprofit groups also celebrate July as National Bison month in honor of this animal, a cultural icon of “unity, resilience, and healthy landscapes and communities.”
It wasn’t always that way for the American bison. Although the large bovines now number in the hundreds of thousands and live in all 50 states, they once faced extinction. By the mid-1870s, bison populations had dropped by the millions and been reduced to just 1% of their natural range, almost exclusively due to overhunting and western settlement.
Fortunately, zoos were one of the first conservation partners involved in efforts to save the bison. The extermination of American bison motivated William Temple Hornaday to lobby Congress in 1887 for the creation of a national zoological park. A herd of 18 bison, first exhibited on the National Mall, were among the first animals in the Smithsonian’s collection when President Grover Cleveland signed into law the creation of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park two years later. Bison are still exhibited at the National Zoo today.
A few decades later, the work of the Bronx Zoo spearheaded efforts to breed bison and reestablish this species in the wild. President Theodore Roosevelt and Hornaday (now Wildlife Conservation Society’s first president) began The American Bison Society in 1905 using the Bronx Zoo to propagate seed stock. The successful initiative grew to supply bison to 33 different parks, tribes, and private conservancies during the century-long program.
Today, more than fifty AZA-accredited zoos are home to bison exhibits. Zoos make up over a third of the members of the American Bison Coalition, and continue to build on species preservation efforts. Bison numbers have increased from a low of 500 individuals to over 500,000 today. Thanks to the work of zoos and their partners, every American has a chance to see their national mammal, both at our accredited facilities and in the wild.
AZA-accredited facilities are committed to preserving wildlife and wild places, internationally and close to home. Over the years, our conservation initiatives have prevented iconic North American species from disappearing from our landscape- the bison, California condor, black-footed ferrets, for instance. Through SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction and other conservation initiatives, our efforts to preserve local species continue today, with efforts focused on red wolves, whooping cranes, Western pond turtles, and Eastern indigo snakes.
I’m inspired by the bison’s story. It is clear the actions we take to protect endangered species today will determine the kind of world we live in for many generations to come. Like the bison, we must be unified and resilient in our approach to lead collaborative conservation efforts for our local and global communities.