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House passes legislation recognizing bison as national mammal

Closeup of a bison in western North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park

WASHINGTON -- The lordly bison, long a romantic symbol of the American West, now has a lofty new title: the national mammal of the United States.

The honor was bestowed by Congress in legislation passed Tuesday by the House. Legislators expect the Senate will follow suit later this week and send the legislation to be signed by President Obama.

“The bison, like the bald eagle, has for many years been a symbol of America for its strength, endurance and dignity, reflecting the pioneer spirit of America,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a prime sponsor of the bill. “This is a fitting designation that recognizes the important cultural and economic role the bison has played in our nation’s history.”

Once, an estimated 30 million to 60 million bison -- commonly called buffalo -- roamed across most of North America, but by the late 1800s, fewer than a thousand were left. The resurrection of the bison is regarded as the first American conservation success story, thanks to efforts by ranchers, conservationists and others.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who once ranched in the North Dakota Badlands, was one of those who helped bring bison back from the brink of extinction. He and others worked with the Bronx Zoo, now home of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Buffalo are central to many American Indian tribes, which also have played a role in bison conservation.

“The recognition of the buffalo as the national mammal shows the cross-cultural stature of this iconic animal and for tribes will allow us to expand our work on reintroducing buffalo into our day-to-day lives,” said Jim Stone, executive director of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, based in Rapid City, S.D.

“Now buffalo have become a part of the fabric of tribal life once again, created the foundation for an economic movement based on healthy food choices and provided conservation groups opportunities to expand the habitat for the species,” Stone added.

As the national mammal, the bison will join the oak, the national tree, designated in 2004; the rose, national floral emblem, designated in 1998; and the bald eagle, national emblem, designated in 1782, as official symbols of the United States.

“Finally we are placing this symbolic creature in the proper perspective by recognizing its many values to the American people, both past and present,” said Keith Aune, a senior conservationist and bison program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Buffalo in herds including Theodore Roosevelt National Park and on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation are descendants of animals spared from extinction at the Bronx Zoo and Yellowstone National Park, and later places like Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

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By Patrick Springer

Forum News Service

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