It’s an understatement to say that bison have made a comeback.
From a historic high of 30 to 60 million animals, North America’s bison population was nearly driven extinct by the end of the 19th century. Indeed, fewer than a thousand were left in the wild, with Yellowstone becoming a de facto enclave for the animals.
Today, bison have been brought from the brink, both through commercial herds and relict populations of wild bison, such as Yellowstone’s. Bison have long been recognized as an important animal, not only to conservationists and environmentalists, but also Native American tribes who venerated the animal long before America thought to protect them. Indeed, with the passing of the bison went the passing of tribal life in much of the American West, as whole nations lost immediate means of subsistence and, more broadly, a lifelink to their heritage.
It’s fitting, therefore, that the bison be designated the national mammal, after a concerted effort to bring it back from the brink. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the National Bison Legacy Act, a bipartisan initiative that’s set to clear the Senate and appear on President Obama’s desk by the end of the week. From the Post:
The bison, which will join the bald eagle as an official national symbol, represents the country’s first successful foray into wildlife conservation. Lobbying for the official mammal designation was a coalition of conservationists, ranchers — for whom bison is business — and tribal groups, such as the InterTribal Buffalo Council which wants to “restore bison to Indian nations in a manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices.”
Cristián Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society which helped lead the effort, called the bison an “icon that represents the highest ideals of America: unity, resilience, and healthy landscapes and communities.”
Bison around Yellowstone, of course, made national news when Montana Governor Steve Bullock announced his intention to permit bison to roam year-round in parts of southwestern and southern Montana. The IBMP partner agencies signed off on the measure earlier this month.