Senators from western states (and, inexplicably, Rhode Island) want to enshrine the Plains bison, colloquially known as the buffalo, as the “national mammal.” Perhaps the passenger pigeon was not available. (Plus, it is not a mammal.)
Ben Franklin reportedly preferred the wild turkey over the bald eagle as the emblem of the fledgling United States of America. He believed eagles were lazy, although there are surely drawbacks to having a big, edible bird as the symbol of liberty and justice for all.
Bald eagles have not always fared well in the country they represented.
Habitat degradation, pesticide pollution and illegal shooting reduced its numbers to fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs in 1963. After three decades under federal protection, the population of wild bald eagles has rebounded to safe numbers.
The bison story does not have that ending, because the buffalo roamed in the path of Manifest Destiny.
The romanticism of vast bison herds is hard to miss. They evoke a time when the West was wild and land was open to homesteading for all those bold enough to claim it and strong enough to prove up.
Bison have iconic traits. They are not easily influenced, and when they get going, they are difficult to turn or halt. Weighing as much as a ton apiece, they are the largest land mammal in North America – the big kid on the block.
They have no significant predators except humans – and humans almost drove them extinct. There is surely a lesson in that.
Settlers were understandably reluctant to homestead land that was regularly trampled to dust. The federal government did not miss the fact that decimating the bison herds on which Native American tribes depended helped open land to settlement – sometimes by relocation and sometimes by starvation.
Buffalo Bill Cody alone killed thousands of bison. The animals were shot to provide meat for railroad workers, and later just for the fun of it. Buffalo skin rugs were popular, and the bones were sent east to be turned into fertilizer. Many animals, though, rotted where they lay. According to a PBS documentary, “Train companies offered tourists the chance to shoot buffalo from the windows of their coaches, pausing only when they ran out of ammunition or the gun’s barrel became too hot.” The herds that seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon were not infinite after all. By the turn of the 20th century, only 10,000 bison were left in the country.
Now most of the bison in the United States are in domestic and commercial herds, hardly an inspiriting symbol of freedom. The wild population, once numbered in the tens of millions, is about 20,000 now, with most of those animals surviving under government protection on public land such as Yellowstone National Park. Neighboring ranchers, fearing diseases that will affect domestic cattle herds, want those bison shot when they cross park boundaries – also probably not the image legislators want to evoke.
Bison evolved to inhabit a landscape that no longer exists. The huge herds will not be back – not ever. Their era is past. That is a history lesson to remember, but let’s be careful with any symbolism that suggests the United States of America might go the way of the free-ranging bison herds.