Joining the bald eagle as a national symbol, the American bison recently became the United States' first national mammal. After four years of outreach to Congress and the White House, by the Wildlife Conservation Society, its partners the InterTribal Buffalo Council and National Bison Association and 60-plus Vote Bison Coalition members, the National Bison Legacy Act was signed on May 9, 2016, officially making the bison our national mammal. This historic event represents a true comeback story, embedded with history, culture, and conservation.
Less than 100 years ago, the American bison was teetering on the verge of extinction. By the beginning of the 20th century, the species' numbers fell from herds of roughly 40 million to less than 1,000 individuals. The impact on Native Americans was devastating.
In 1905, William Hornaday, Theodore Roosevelt, and others formed the American Bison Society (ABS) to help save bison from extinction---the first national effort to save an American wildlife species. The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) also helped reverse the bison's fate. Beginning at Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the park protected its remaining two dozen bison. Today, through immense collaboration with diverse partners, DOI lands currently support 17 bison herds in 12 states, for a total of approximately 10,000 bison over 4.6 million acres of DOI and adjacent lands.
To honor such an iconic and resilient species, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act on April 28, 2016, making the bison a U.S. symbol of unity, resilience and healthy landscapes and communities. The Act recognizes the historical, cultural, and economic importance of bison. More than 60 American Indian tribes participate in the Intertribal Buffalo Council, an organization working to help coordinate and assist tribes in returning bison back to tribal lands. Also, over one million acres of tribal land contribute to the conservation and cultural efforts of bison. Not only do bison play an important cultural role, but they also have significant economic value. Private bison producers own about 360,000 bison, creating jobs and providing a healthy meat source as well as leather and wool products to the American public. Bison also play an important ecological role, beneficially influencing prairie ecosystems through their grazing patters and behavior.
Although the recognition does not convey new protections for the bison, the Act recognizes the great conservation success story and importance of its comeback to Native Americans and rural communities alike. This new and permanent designation conveys a vision of shared values of unity, resilience and healthy landscapes and communities. No other species is so iconic of American history and culture like the bison.