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OUR VIEW: It's the bison's time to shine

Legislators take a lot of heat about seemingly insignificant bills -- the ones that establish state desserts, propose changes to the state flag, recognize constituents for noteworthy achievements, etc. Generally, such legislative efforts are regarded as a waste of time.

Our Legislature only meets during a few months each winter, after all, and there are certainly more important issues to consider during that short time. Nevertheless, at least one of the supposed "fluff" bills this session is worth supporting. That's Senate Bill 114, titled "An Act to designate the American bison as the state mascot."

The entire text of the legislation is simply this: "The American bison is hereby designated as the state mascot of South Dakota." The bill's champion is Sen. Tom Nelson, R-Lead, and we applaud him for his effort.

Why? Think for a moment about the place of the bison in the grand story of South Dakota. No other animal has had such a heavy influence on the history, culture and collective psyche of our state.

In pre-settlement days, American Indians tracked massive bison herds numbering in the thousands across the prairie. Lewis and Clark, upon their arrival in what would become South Dakota, reported bison herds stretching toward the vast horizon.

Bison numbers rapidly declined during white settlement, but some forward thinkers, including South Dakota's own Scotty Philip, stepped in and saved the animals from near extinction.

In modernity, bison have been a constant draw for visitors to South Dakota. At sites such as Badlands National Park and Custer State Park, there are few occurrences more thrilling than witnessing a herd of powerful bison roaming across the land.

Seeing a bison, aka "buffalo," transports the viewer back in time, to the romanticized period of America's westward advance. No other animal has anywhere near the nostalgic value.

Beyond their societal significance, bison also play an increasingly important role in South Dakota's agricultural economy. According to the most recently available data from 2010, South Dakota is the nation's leading bison producer, with 38,700 head located in the state. That's more than two times as many as the second-place state, Nebraska.

Yet, despite the bison's unquestioned status as an informal symbol of South Dakota, we haven't done much at all to formally recognize the animal's significance. Our state animal is the coyote. The pheasant graces our state quarter. Our license plates display the image of Mount Rushmore.

It's high time we give the bison their due. The bill designating the bison as the state mascot has already passed the Senate (without the vote of our District 20 Sen. Mike Vehle, we're sad to report), and we hope it sails through the House and gains the governor's signature.