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National Bison Day

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The following is a guest post by Nikki Werner, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is an MLIS graduate from the University of Maryland iSchool

On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, Pub.L. 114-152, designating the American bison as the National Mammal of the United States and declaring the first Saturday of November to be National Bison Day.

The text of the law makes several important acknowledgments regarding the significance of the bison to many American Indian tribes as well as our collective national identity as a historical symbol of the United States. The American bison is a fitting choice for our National Mammal; nearly destroyed by human activity, they exist today solely due to the cooperative efforts of tribal leadership, nonprofits, and the United States government. It is an American redemption story unlike almost any other.

A furry, brown bison stands in the snow in front of a forest.
“As the World Wildlife Fund points out, American bison, or buffaloes, do not move south as the weather grows bitter cold and inhospitable in Yellowstone National Park in the northwest corner of Wyoming.”Feb. 09, 2016. Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. //

Bison are North America’s largest mammal, weighing between 1,800 and 2,400 pounds, with males growing to heights of 6.5 feet and up to 12.5 feet in length. They are surprisingly agile and can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. Bison are hardy creatures, and their coats help them to withstand extreme winter temperatures. Their range once consisted of nearly the entirety of North America. In 1770 George Washington hunted bison along the Ohio River in what is now West Virginia. Today, herds are found primarily in national parks, private ranches, and on tribal lands.

Photo of a Harper's Weekly cover from 1874 that depicts a man standing over a dead bison. The man has a knife in one hand and holds up the bison's hide with the other hand.
Slaughtered for the Hide. 1874. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. //

Hunted to the brink of extinction by the end of the 19th century, the collapse of the bison population profoundly impacted the culture and autonomy of Plains Indian Tribes. The decimation of the large herds, once numbering in the tens of millions, also negatively affected the ecosystems of the Great Plains. Bison shape the landscape by grazing and wallowing which creates new habitats for plants, insects, and smaller mammals.

Bison no longer meet the criteria to be considered an endangered species although they are listed as “near threatened” by the World Wildlife Fund. Attempts to recognize Yellowstone bison as genetically unique and eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act are ongoing. Today, efforts to conserve, breed, and rewild bison on tribal lands are being led by the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), the National Bison Association, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Department of the Interior to name a few. Since 1992, the ITBC has facilitated the transfer of over 10,000 bison into tribally managed herds across the United States.

So are they bison or buffalo? Although these terms are used interchangeably, bison and buffalo are two distinct species. Buffalos have longer horns, a short coat, and are found in Africa and Asia. Bison species are native to North America and Europe and have thick fur and a large hump. The National Park Service explains two possible theories on the mix-up in their FAQs about bison. But regardless of how it happened, the interchangeable use of buffalo and bison is so prevalent it is unlikely to change outside of scientific circles.

If you are in or around the D.C. area, consider honoring our national mammal by stopping by and saying hello to “Lucy” and “Gally”, the American bison at the National Zoo.

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