Earlier this summer, the American bison was designated America’s national mammal, joining the bald eagle as the country’s second official animal. Many U.S. states already have their own state mammals (as well as state fish, horses, bats, butterflies, and, in the case of Oregon, even state microbes). The country as a whole, however, has been content with its single symbol since the 18th century. It took a four-year, bipartisan campaign, spearheaded by the Wildlife Conservation Society, for the bison to earn its spot in this selective group.
National mammalhood might seem like a strange cause for a wildlife organization to champion, especially given the urgency of conservation issues like climate change and habitat destruction. After all, becoming an animal symbol doesn’t afford the bison any official protections or special treatment. At the same time, however, it’s not exactly meaningless. National symbols are known in conservation circles as flagships, species whose high-profile status makes them a rallying point for protections that ultimately benefit other, less-visible species. The ban on DDT, which benefited a host of endangered birds, was driven in part by the bald eagle’s iconic status.
Although some of America’s native mammals might be more ubiquitous (say, grey squirrels), cuter (black-footed ferrets), or more powerful (grizzly bears), it’s hard to beat the bison’s unique place in our national identity and conservation history. Throughout North America, bison played an important role in shaping and maintaining the prairie ecosystems that cover most of the central part of the North American continent. The enormous herds that roamed the Great Plains acted like combination lawnmowers and heavy machinery, simultaneously keeping the grasslands from growing into forests and maintaining compact soil underneath. The rest of the story is probably familiar to anyone who has seen enough Western movies: settlers wiping out herds of bison by shooting at them from trains; piles of skulls twenty feet high; the spread of disease from domestic cattle to wild bison herds; and, ultimately, the near-extirpation of a species that once numbered in the tens of millions. By the end of the 1800s, fewer than 1,000 bison remained.
The American Bison Society, formed in the early 20th century by a New York-based group of zoologists, spearheaded the first concerted effort to establish a managed herd on protected Montana rangeland. The success of the program inspired similar efforts on protected lands throughout the bison’s habitat. These efforts have brought the species back from the brink to a robust population estimated to be more than 500,000. However, only about 3% of all bison are truly “wild;” the other 97% exist in fenced preserves on private farms, ranches, and public parklands. Most are raised for meat. The greatest symbol of America’s untamed wilderness is now essentially a captive population.
Although bison are no longer in immediate danger of extinction, the Wildlife Conservation Society sees national mammal status as part of a larger effort to restore bison to their previous role as engineers of grassland prairie ecosystems. Despite their numbers, bison remain “ecologically extinct:” unable to roam, interact naturally with ecosystems, or help maintain open grasslands as they did before colonial expansion. Meanwhile, grassland-associated species of birds, mammals, and insects are in decline throughout the continent as unmanaged prairies overgrow into shrubs or forests. For the proponents of the National Bison Legacy Act, raising awareness of the bison’s historical importance isn’t just cosmetic. Instead, it’s a necessary first step in spotlighting the current status of bison and, ultimately, stirring public interest in restoring wild bison populations.
The designation of the bison as the United States’ national mammal conjures up a complex combination of images: a nostalgic invocation of the American west; a stinging reminder of the human capacity for massive ecological destruction; and a feel-good (and quintessentially American) conservation story, one in which enterprising individuals band together to save a species from extinction. More than that, it’s a sobering reminder that we live in a world in which wilderness can no longer realistically be separated from human influence. Bison exist and persist, semi-wild, thanks to continuing human intervention. The bison isn’t just America’s national mammal, it’s a reflection of the past and future of America’s consciousness of conservation. Only time will tell whether the bison’s new title will inspire meaningful change for North America’s most iconic grazer (and the habitats that depend on it).
Editor’s note: A study cited in an earlier version of this article is no longer available for free on JSTOR.