The American bison may be joining the bald eagle as an official symbol of the land where it was once hunted to near-extinction, if a bipartisan-backed "buffalo" bill succeeds in the legislature.

Both Democratic donkeys and Republican elephants are supporting a bill that would make the American bison (Bison bison) American's national mammal. The National Bison Legacy Act, Senate bill 3248, has 10 co-sponsors hailing from both sides of the aisle.

"Since our frontier days, the bison has become a symbol of American strength and determination," Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said as he introduced the bill.

Besides Enzi’s romantic Wild West idealism, bison have economic value. Although images of bald eagles may appear on commemorative plates, bison regularly appear on restaurants’ plates in the form of bison burgers and steaks.

"The importance of bison in Colorado extends far beyond its symbolism and our heritage," said Mark Udall (D-Colo.) “Colorado has a thriving bison ranching industry that sustains herds of these majestic creatures while also creating jobs and driving commerce."

Ironically, it was the bison’s economic value that led to over-hunting. Bison tongue was a prized delicacy in the 1800’s and bison pelts were valuable commodities on the international market.

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The rapid slaughter of the bison herds had more sinister motives than greed. An L.A. Times blog, expressed skepticism of the National Bison Legacy Act and noted that eradicating the bison was a means of destroying the native cultures of the Plains.

Making amends with the bison on a national level may take more than making it a symbol. "Providing resources to restore bison to some of their former range, like on tribal reservations, is an even greater idea,” said Cindy Hoffman of Defenders of Wildlife in the L.A. Times. “Congress should look beyond the symbolism of this proposal and make a commitment to conserving bison and other imperiled wildlife.’’

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Thirty million bison once roamed from northern Canada to Mexico and from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians. Now, the majority of the world's bison live behind fences. Most of them aren't pure bison anymore, either. Most of the “bison” meat you find are from cow/bison hybrids. The hybrid beasts are more docile than their pure-blood kin.

Although much of where the "buffalo" roamed has been taken over by farms, pastures and cities, perhaps someday large swaths of land could return to the wild bison. Billionaire media-mogul Ted Turner partnered with Yellowstone National Park in 2010 to help expand the park's herd of purebred bison and to save the animals from deadly brucellosis disease, reported another article from the L.A. Times' bison beat.

Turner has over 55,000 head of bison on his ranches and hopes to use Yellowstone's bonafide bison to improve his herd's genetics.


An American bison (Bison bison) in Yellowstone National Park (Hans Stieglitz, Wikimedia Commons)