Thursday, May 19, 2016

This 'n That Thursdays: The American Bison, Our New National Mammal

American bison in Yellowstone National Park
(from Wikimedia Commons).

This week President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, giving our nation its first official National Mammal!  The American bison (Bison bison), commonly (and erroneously) also known as the buffalo, is a large, even-toed ungulate, or artiodactyl, and is the largest terrestrial animal in North America.  There are two subspecies, the plains bison (Bison bison bison), whose range includes the Great Plains, and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), found mostly in the boreal forests.  Since the range of the latter is mostly outside of the United States, I presume that it is the plains bison which is considered our National Mammal, although the act does not specify (and it is probably not that important to most people, unless you are a taxonomist who wants clarity!).

Galloping bison by Eadweard Muybridge,
first published in 1887
(from Wikimedia Commons).

Historically, the bison population was huge, probably in the range of 25 million, but by the late 1880s a massive slaughter campaign reduced their numbers to less than 600 (the following photo is truly frightening):

Pile of American bison skulls to be ground for fertilizer in the 1870s
(from Wikimedia Commons).

A few ranchers at the time became concerned that the massive mammal would become extinct, and began efforts to protect the small population that remained.  Gradually other groups became involved, and currently it is estimated that 500,000 bison are spread across North America.  Although there had at one point been some crossbreeding with cattle, at the present time there are still several small herds of purebred bison, and efforts are being made to breed out any hybridized cattle genes still left in the remaining bison herds.

Bull bison at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (1979). 

I saw my first bison herd at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge when I lived in Oklahoma.  This herd was the first successful reintroduction of a mammal species to a former range in the United States.  American bison are truly impressive, and the species is an integral part of the nation's heritage. Without a doubt they deserve the distinction as our official National Mammal.

For more information about the history behind the National Bison Legacy Act, check out the American Bison Society and Vote Bison websites.  And please, if you visit an area with bison or any wild animal, respect their wildness and do not attempt to approach, pet, take a selfie, or undertake a misguided rescue mission, as it could end badly.  Three cheers for our new National Mammal!


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