The American Bison: A new national symbol

On Monday, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act officially making the American Bison the first National Mammal of the United States. The act was introduced last year and was passed by congress just last week on the 28th April. In response to the act being passed Congressman William Clay said, “No other indigenous species tells America’s story,” sadly this story is not entirely a happy one.

Before Europeans settled in America, there were estimated to be up to 30 million bison roaming The Great Plains of North America and every year they would migrate hundreds of kilometres across the continent. They were a very important keystone species which had a massive influence on the North American landscape.

The lives of many Native Americans revolved around the bison and it held great spiritual and cultural significance among many of the tribes. Large parts of the bison was used for food and clothing but other parts were often used for making accessories such as bracelets, headdresses, ornaments and pouches to store food and water. Essentially nothing went to waste.

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Credit: Jack Dykinga

However, the species declined heavily as European settlers spread westwards across America and was almost whipped out by the end of the 19th century. The main reasons for the decline was, firstly, because there were so many they were considered limitless and were hunted on a large scale for their tongues, hides and bones, the rest was left to rot. Bison killing contests were very common with some hunters claiming to have single-handedly shot up to 250 in a single day. Secondly, around the time the American government encouraged the slaughtering of bison as a way to try and break the tribes. Because of this uncontrolled killing and also habitat loss to make way for farmland, just over 1,000 individuals were left by the end of the 19th century. It was at this point when pioneering conservationists realised something had to be done about the shocking decline in number.

In the early 20th century the American bison society was founded by the director of the New York Zoological Park at the time, William T. Hornaday, with the support of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Today around 500,000 bison are kept in captivity for meat, but around 30,000 bison currently exist in the wild. Many things still threaten the bison including habitat loss, breeding with domestic cattle, loss in genetic diversity and the spread of bovine TB.

So last week the decision was made to finally recognise the animal as both a conservation success story, with it being brought back from the brink of extinction and also its significant role in shaping the history of America.

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Emma Caton

Emma is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at Imperial College London. Communicating about wildlife is her biggest passion and she enjoys sharing issues in conservation, the latest wildlife research and news on her blog and YouTube channel ‘The Zoologist’. In the past she have presented her own wildlife show on Leeds Student Radio and written for popular science magazine 'Biosphere'.

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