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Bison -- a 'symbol' of U.S. strength -- may become national mammal

May 29, 2012|Ry Richard Simon
  • An adult bison stands firm between her calf and wildlife biologists observing the herd from a nearby dirt road in Camp Pendelton, Calif.
An adult bison stands firm between her calf and wildlife biologists observing… (Los Angeles Times / Don Bartletti )

WASHINGTON -- The bison has been a symbol of the Old West. It’s been featured on the nickel, as a name for sports teams and on the White House menu. Now legislation has been introduced in Congress to make the bison the national mammal.

"Since our frontier days, the bison has become a symbol of American strength and determination," Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said in introducing the National Bison Legacy Act. 

The designation would be strictly symbolic, adding the buffalo to the bald eagle, the rose and the oak tree as official national symbols. 

But the largest land mammal in North America has already done something that few issues have done in this hyper-partisan Congress: brought together lawmakers from both parties.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced at the request of the Wildlife Conservation Society,  the National Bison Assn., made up of meat producers, and the Intertribal Buffalo Council as a way to raise public awareness of  the "important cultural, economical and ecological role of the bison,’’ said John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The society, a conservation organization that operates the Bronx Zoo and other New York City zoos, worked with Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s to save the bison from extinction.  Today, bison number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States, according to the society.

"At one point in American history, bison were brought in to graze outside the original Smithsonian building here inWashington, D.C." Enzi noted.

The measure’s introduction comes as a number of lawmakers have worked to expand U.S. bison sales in international markets.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), one of the bill’s cosponsors, said the importance of bison in his state "extends far beyond its symbolism and our heritage.  Colorado has a thriving bison ranching industry that sustains herds of these majestic creatures while also creating jobs and driving commerce."

Enzi noted that his home state of Wyoming, which depicts the bison on its state flag, has joined Oklahoma and Kansas in declaring the bison as the  state mammal.

President Reagan in 1986 declared the rose the national floral emblem after Congress designated it as such. Congress in 2004 made the oak the national tree.

Cindy Hoffman of Defenders of Wildlife welcomed the idea of declaring the bison the national mammal. But, she said: "Providing resources to restore bison to some of their former range, like on tribal reservations, is an even greater idea.  Congress should look beyond the symbolism of this proposal and make a commitment to conserving bison and other imperiled wildlife.’’

The estimates of hundreds of thousands of bison include  "partially domesticated bison that have cattle genes and are raised as livestock, not wildlife," she said. "The number of truly wild, pure bison is much lower.’’


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