America's New National Mammal

May 2017

By Julie Anton Randall

With bipartisan leadership in Congress, and endorsement of the Interior and Agriculture Secretaries, the National Bison Legacy Act made the North American bison (Bison bison) the new U.S. National Mammal when President Obama signed it into law last spring.  Leading the multi-sector Vote Bison Coalition (VBC), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), InterTribal Buffalo Council, and National Bison Association had combined forces to make an ecological, social and economic case compelling enough to overcome legislative gridlock. 

The designation relays three principles: 

(1) Unity: to right the wrong imposed on Native people by Westward expansion and recognize that today, bison are cherished by all Americans

(2) Resilience: in recovering from a dispersed population of less than 1,000 to over 300,000, the bison has been ecologically able to endure changing climates while remaining culturally relevant

(3) Healthy Landscapes and Communities: bison regenerate diverse native grasses, create livelihoods and serve up healthy meals

John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs for WCS and the Bronx Zoo in Bronx, N.Y., said:  “The bison represents so much of what we stand for, from the conservation impact of zoos, to our cultural heritage, to the ecological health of our grasslands. Only an animal that can bring so many diverse people together could ever be our National Mammal and we are proud to celebrate it.”

Chapters of the National Mammal Story 

Tens of millions of bison engineered the grasslands and boreal forests that became America.  They carved and fortified habitats sustaining many connected species.  The first people treasured the bison for its warm skins, ample tools made from body parts, and ceremonial inspiration.  Melding into “buffalo” lifeways, Native Americans structured whole societies around great herd migrations. 

“The bison represents so much of what we stand for, from the conservation impact of zoos, to our cultural heritage, to the ecological health of our grasslands. Only an animal that can bring so many diverse people together could ever be our National Mammal and we are proud to celebrate it.”

The arrival of Europeans sealed the fate of bison and Native people alike—near extirpation of bison by 1880, wrought by greed and munitions.  Not even a thousand bison remained by 1900, scattered across the continent.

In 1905, president of the New York Zoological Society (now WCS), William Hornaday, along with President Theodore Roosevelt and others formed the American Bison Society.  They led a national campaign involving tribes, ranchers and industrialists to create wild bison reserves, rescuing enough bison to re-grow herds, one taking up residence at the Bronx Zoo.  Progeny of the Zoo’s bison would supply animals to two national wildlife refuges and Wind Cave National Park by 1913. 

Bison naturally produce at a steady pace.  Returned to native lands now mostly devoid of predators, offspring proliferated on public lands and ranches.  Today, bison live in every state, although all but 10 percent are raised for meat and wool.

Two problems challenge recovery of wild and free-roaming herds, those that can help bring back the grasslands—95 percent of which has been lost to land conversion.  One is the result of failed early century attempts to breed bison and domestic cows to create a hardier meat source with more rump; many bison today still have traces (<3 percent) of Bos taurus.  The other major issue is brucellosis, a disease shared among ungulates including elk—and cattle— which becomes political in states where bison are considered livestock.  Warranted or not, some ranchers fear neighbor bison will infect their cattle.  Bison also compete for public grazing lands used by cattle ranchers.

Federal agencies managing bison are also working on genetic integrity—the key to ensuring herds isolated by fences and unable to migrate can remain stable and grow.  WCS is on task to share population viability analyses among them to determine how to move bison around and decrease kinship as well as cattle genes.  The Interior Department is linking to efforts in Canada and Mexico to broaden bison recovery to a continental scale. 

American bison at the Bronx Zoo in Bronx, N.Y. © WCS, Julie Larsen Maher

Zoos are vital partners in bison conservation. Wind Cave bison descendents from the Bronx Zoo have bred into over 40 growing herds on other public, tribal and private conservancy lands.  Bison at Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico are managed by Denver Zoo in Denver, Colo.  The Zoo’s Rocky Mountains/Great Plains Program Director Luis Ramirez said, “The Zoo and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have a synergy enabling us to accomplish things like conservation at a landscape level that neither partner could do alone.”

Chicago Zoological Society President and Chief Executive Officer, Stuart Strahl, remarked, “Our exhibit portrays the perspectives of both the Lakota people and conservationists, and we appeal to our guests to help us continue the journey of restoring the bison and other threatened species to their native habitats.”  [Please see the Member View piece on page 7 of the printed Connect for WCS Bison Program Director Keith Aune’s depiction of partnering with Native Americans to “bring the buffalo home.”]

Some zoos are investing in exhibits that make North American wildlife more relevant to the public. They also make the connection between bison and co-dependent species, like black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs. 

Zoos help people get up close and personal with a bison—to see them, hear them, and smell them— something not advisable in the wild. Bison are not docile by nature and are agile (can jump 6-foot fences) and fast (can outrun a horse).  Composing a third of the (renamed) American Bison Coalition (ABC), zoos are the majority ABC voice.  They spread the word on National Bison Day with dozens of events and social media organized to reach the largest and most diverse public audience for the National Mammal—zoo patrons.

Sharing the National Mammal story is an opportunity for zoos to connect to our nation’s capital.  Its growing voice helped pass the Act.  Now use of the National Mammal seal is essential.  Inscribed on it are the words Unity, Resilience and Health, a compelling reflection on what America needs.

Julie Anton Randall served as National Coordinator of the American Bison Coalition for WCS.


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