There hasn't been a lot of bipartisanship in Congress this year, but a broad coalition of support from conservationists, ranchers, and Native Americans led to passage of the National Bison Legacy Act. The Act makes bison the official national mammal of the United States. Most people are familiar with one phase of the bison's North American history. Massive bison herds used to roam freely across the great plains and American West (with a peak population estimated at 60 million), but due to human settlement, disease, and most significantly, market hunting, the bison nearly went extinct by 1900.
A combination of conservation and private bison ranching help bring the bison population back. Today there are an estimated 500,000. That number is somewhat misleading, however, as many of those are now domesticated livestock bison, cross-bred with cattle. As few as 30,000 are on conservation lands, with only 5,000 un-fenced and healthy. And even the wild bison are subject to annual "culls" conducted by the federal government in Yellowstone National Park:
In 1995, the state of Montana sued the park service to control bison that roam outside of Yellowstone’s boundary. Montana stockmen feared that bison could infect local cattle populations with the disease brucellosis, which can cause cows to abort their calves. For years, the Montana Department of Livestock had killed bison that left the park.
In 2000, a court- mediated settlement resulted in the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which remains in effect today. It basically requires the park service to do the bidding of Montana stockmen. The park service, in cooperation with the state livestock department, captures bison inside the park and ships them to slaughterhouses. This effort has cost an estimated $50 million since it began 15 years ago. Ninety-five percent of that funding has come from the federal government.
There is very little science to back up the brucellosis fear, however. Some believe brucellosis to be a cover for ranchers' concerns that wild bison will compete with other livestock for prime grasslands. In any case, the bison, despite a promising recovery, faces many challenges to a return to historic habitats and grazing freedoms. So, does the fact that the bison is now America's national mammal provide some hope? Here are the two operative clauses of the National Bison Legacy Act:
In other words, the first clause adopts bison as the national mammal; the second clause clarifies that the designation changes nothing. The Interagency Bison Management Plan, for example, is not affected by this law, nor is any other statute or federal management activity. Unlike state legislatures, however, Congress has not been in the habit of designating official animal species. The only other animal to receive this distinction is the bald eagle, the national bird, which has enjoyed a successful rehabilitation success story. The bald eagle's recovery can be attributed to other federal laws and management actions (such as the Endangered Species Act), but the bird's status as a national icon surely help garner support for conservation efforts. Similarly, while merely designating the bison as America's national mammal is unlikely to make a difference on its own, it can't hurt to raise the profile of the bison and its plight. If nothing else, the bison lives on as a reminder of our predecessors' unbalanced approach to natural resources management.