The American bison: both a sad lesson and a living icon

Since the Colonial Era, America’s largest land mammal—the American bison— has been a symbol of our nation’s strength, history and culture.  The species was once plentiful in the United States, but was then senselessly exterminated in one of the most short-sighted and wasteful campaigns against nature in our country’s history.  Today however, there are now pockets of free-roaming bison coming back in the West. 

And in acknowledgement of the importance this animal plays as a symbol for needless loss and potential recovery for our nation, United States Senators Michael Enzi (R-WY) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) recently introduced a bill to recognize the bison as a national symbol alongside the bald eagle, rose and oak tree.  If passed, The National Bison Legacy Act would designate the bison as the ‘National Mammal of the United States.’  Dozens of other countries have already designated a national mammal, and an animal that truly represents America’s frontier and heritage deserves to receive such praise and recognition.

Celebrating animals is a way for people to connect with history and culture, not just in the United States, but countries all across the globe as well.  For example, elephants have been seen in history from as early as 4000 B.C. and have an important connection with Hindu and Buddhist religions.  However, today elephants are faced with escalating threats of habitat loss and poaching to feed the illicit ivory trade.

And at one point, tigers roamed wildly throughout Asia, Turkey and Russia with a population once numbering 100,000.  Tigers play a large role in East Asian cultures and the Bengal tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh and India.  But with only 3,000 tigers left in the wild, the threat of extinction is far too close to a reality. 

Another globally revered species – the African lion -- is an international symbol of strength and courage.  But their populations are declining at an alarming rate due to habitat loss, trophy hunting and killings resulting from human/lion conflict; As a result, this symbol of power may be heading in the same direction as the critically endangered tiger.

These examples raise an important question:  if these iconic and beloved animals – lions, elephants, tigers – are held up in society as emblems for important virtues, cultural values and national pride, why are they still under such horrendous pressure of extinction?  Such a contradiction demonstrates the ability within human nature to both admire and simultaneously destroy the world around us. 

Recognizing animals as not only part of our natural ecosystems, but as integral parts of history and culture, is imperative to the survival of our world’s iconic species.  These animals are not just wild beasts running through open land, they represent power, heritage and a connection between humans and animals, and hopefully that recognition will lead to their rescue. 

The American bison is an ideal symbol of the United States and it should be celebrated and recognized as the National Mammal of the United States – it is an animal whose past reminds us of the damage we can do, but who today shows us our ability to bring species back from the precipice of extinction and move toward recovery.  The bison deserves its spot on our landscape and in our history books for this very reason.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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