Senators want bison declared national mammal
By Dirk Lammers
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Senators from the Dakotas are among those making another attempt to have the bison declared the national mammal, citing the animal's historical significance and importance to Native Americans.
South Dakota's Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson said the goal is to recognize its cultural, ecological and economic impact.
"The bison has played an important role in our nation's history, holds spiritual significance to Native American cultures, and remains one of our most iconic and enduring symbols," Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson, along with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., are among the co-sponsors of the National Bison Legacy Act set to be introduced Wednesday. The bill is backed by the Rapid City-based Intertribal Buffalo Council, which includes 57 tribes, and the National Bison Association.
If passed, the largely ceremonial designation would give the animal more recognition but not any added protection. Similar legislation introduced in 2012 stalled in Congress.
Tens of millions of bison once roamed most of North America but overhunting reduced the population to about 1,000 animals by the turn of the 20th century. Conservationists including President Theodore Roosevelt created the American Bison Society in 1905 to save the species from extinction, re-establishing herds in Oklahoma, Montana and South Dakota.
About 400,000 bison now roam pastures and rangelands across North America. Johnson also noted that bison production has become an important agricultural endeavor as demand for the meat rises.
Keith Aune, bison program director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said buffalo helped shape the vegetation and landscape when they dominated the prairie grasslands. Bison were also important to many American Indian tribes, who killed the animals for food and materials to make clothing and shelter.
"They were a force of nature," Aune said. "They weren't animals just wandering around eating grass. Bison are woven into the fabric of our society in many, many ways."
Hoeven said North Dakota's history is closely associated with the bison, largely because of Roosevelt's influence.
"His efforts to protect these majestic animals helped to retrieve them from the brink of extinction and established them as one of the most powerful and inspiring symbols of the American spirit, for Native Americans and settlers alike," Hoeven said in a statement.
A resolution co-sponsored by Johnson designating November 2, 2013, as "National Bison Day" passed the Senate last year.