Why The Bison is About to Become Our New National Mammal

Credit: Jouko van der Kruijssen / Getty

The federal government is on its way to honoring the American buffalo as a national symbol. On Tuesday evening, the U.S. House voted to adopt bison as the “national mammal,” under the National Bison Legacy Act. Clearly, we love our bison: Lobbying for the official mammal designation and behind the origins of the National Bison Legacy Act involved a coalition of more than 50 businesses, tribal groups, organizations, conservationists, and ranchers, as well as efforts from the National Bison Association and the Wildlife Conservation Society. (No other animals were even considered for this honor, and this is the only animal to have a bill passed in the House to designate it as a national mammal.) The title would give the iconic animal recognition similar to that of the bald eagle as our national bird.

"No other indigenous species tells America's story better than this noble creature," Representative William Lacy Clay of Missouri said in an official statement. The American bison is an enduring symbol of strength, Native American culture, and the boundless western wildness. It is an integral part of the still largely untold story of Native Americans and their historic contributions to our national identity." In agreement, Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota hailed during Congressional hearings that the bison, “like the bald eagle, has for many years been a symbol of America for its strength, endurance, and dignity, reflecting the pioneer spirit of our country," and therefore deserves to symbolize these traits formally, especially when considering the buffalo’s personal history in the U.S. (We wonder if the bald eagle is feeling a little slighted right now.)

Before western settlement, an estimated 30 to 60 million buffalo grazed the plains that stretch from what is now the Great Bear Lake in northwest Canada to the Mexican state of Durango to the Atlantic seaboard in the 1500s. But due to overhunting, the population dwindled at the turn of the 20th century. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by 1884 there were just 325 wild bison living in the U.S. Conservation efforts by, and protection under, President Teddy Roosevelt’s Yellowstone Preservation Act of 1894 helped to restore the species, bringing their numbers back to more than 500,000 across the U.S. today.

Since, the buffalo has been used as a symbol for many of the Great Plains states. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming have adopted the animal as their official state mammal. The Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana state quarters all prominently feature buffalo, while the Wyoming flag and the state seal of Indiana displays a buffalo. Nationally, the famous “buffalo nickel” featured the bison on the reverse side of the coin from 1913 to 1938. In 2005, the United States Mint coined a nickel with a new depiction of the bison as part of its "Westward Journey" series.

It’s clear that the buffalo is symbolically more near and dear to the hearts of Americans than other mammals, such as the grizzly bear or whitetail deer. But before it's official, the current National Bison Legacy Act must get Senate approval before heading to the President's desk for his signature. We'll see if this goes as seamlessly as the buffalos roaming the grasslands of yesteryear freely in massive herds...