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Respecting Our National Mammal

On May 14th, National Public Radio host, Scott Simon shared a thoughtful commentary on his show regarding the plight of our new National Mammal and the potential for greenwashing by the bison industry. Mr. Simon referenced a recent story by Christopher Ketchum in Outside Magazine. Below is Wild Idea co-founder, Dan O’Brien’s thoughts on the issue. Let us know what you think in the comment section below or on Facebook.

Some individuals and recent media coverage claim that the National Bison Legacy Act, declaring the Bison as America’s National Mammal that was signed into law last week, is more greenwashing than conservation. It is hard to argue that there is no greenwashing involved in the legislation that was backed by an array of commercial interests. But arguing that there is no conservation value in bringing national attention to the plight of the bison, who were reduced from tens of millions in the days before Europeans moved onto the continent to perhaps a few hundred at the turn of the twentieth century, is equally difficult to defend.

Buffalo herd

Deriding the passage of the National Bison Legacy Act is a classic example of making the good the enemy of the perfect. It is particularly counterproductive when, as in this case, the perfect is unattainable in the foreseeable future. Complaints against making the bison our national mammal seem to be centered in cities and coastal regions with little direct connection to the American Great Plains, which is the natural habitat of the bison. (The mountains, including Yellowstone Park, do not seem to have been a preferred habitat for bison.) Because the bison is a keystone species of the Great Plains, declaring it as our National Mammal throws a bright light on America’s most abused and least protected ecosystem. This is a good thing. By bringing attention to the plight and history of the bison we bring attention to the processes that once made our country’s plains a grassland paradise. If our national bison herd is healthy it is likely that species diversity, grazing balances, carbon and nitrogen cycles, and water system are healthy too. At present, those processes are not as healthy as they should be and without improving that health, bison will never recover to anywhere near their past glory.

Bison on the prairie
The often-ignored fact about the hoped-for bison recovery is that restoring a “wild” population bison herd would necessitate the forced removal of tens of millions of people and agricultural valued in billions of dollars per year. The other fact that precludes a truly “wild” population of bison is that, in the twenty first century, no matter how large the tract of land, by law must be encircled by a fence or other barrier. Beyond those barriers is private property owned by people who do not want bison eating their crops and grass, and running through their back yards. Bison are not birds that fly over fences and do little damage on the other side. If Bison do not have what they need on their side of the barrier (as with Yellowstone bison in winter) they will go over or through the barrier and can easily cause trouble before they can be brought back. With the economic system that is in place now, fences are a necessity. Many of us wish that this was not the case but, alas, for the near future it simply is. For now, we are stuck with a continent that is hostel to bison herds that are free to roam anywhere they please.

Buffalo Fur in Fence

Some have said that the National Bison Legacy Act is little more than an attempt by private bison ranchers to further commercialize bison. The drive toward the commercial is alive and well in all contemporary pursuits – including publishing, broadcasting, and conservation. Commercialism may well be a more worthy target of our outrage than the National Bison Legacy Act. People have accused the bison industry and the Native American Tribes that raise bison of being little more than farmers of bison. Sadly, there is some truth in this statement. Despite the fact that the bison industry is responsible for bringing the total number of bison up from a few hundred to a half a million, almost all (about 92%) of the bison that are sold as meat are raised in the cattle feedlot model. They are kept in confinement and feed mostly the same genetically modified corn and soybeans that is causing the conversion of the bison’s diverse grasslands into a sterile monoculture, devoid of birds, insects, and native plants. But the critics of the National Bison Legacy Act have not done their homework. There are other business models of bison husbandry that put species diversity and soil health as important as profit.

Bison grazing on the prairie

The entrenched enmity of the American Bison debate may be an extension of the acronym in Washington but in the case of bison, compromise does not seem impossible. The National Bison Legacy Act encourages a way forward and, for the sake of those regal beasts and as a token of repentance for what we did to them, we owe them our best efforts.

Lone Bull Buffalo

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26 comments

  • The issue of fencing for large open spaces, where animals range over a wide area, has gotten complicated by the differing views on fencing and who must pay for it.

    If a State passes “fencing out” laws doesn’t that mean the private property owner is responsible for constructing the fence? The owner has the burden to fence out ranging beasts. In the case of “fencing in” laws, would that refer to a State that has passed laws making the rancher responsible for constructing and maintaining the fence anywhere private property damage from naturally ranging animals might occur?

    That could get very expensive for ranchers. In Oregon when protestors cut open a section of fence at the Wild Life Refuge, they told a television audience to “let the drilling, mining and hunting begin”. As Oregon is a “fence out” State, the fence might have been there to prevent ranging wildlife likely to damage the Refuge and Indian burial grounds from over running the Wildlife Refuge boundaries.

    But the fence was not seen as a protective measure to the Protestors. To them it was a restriction preventing local people from free use of the land. Something about this must have resonated with the jury, as I believe the man videoed cutting and forcefully opening the fence was acquited.

    The arrogant behavior of the European immigrants during the takeover of the Prairie is forever a blot on the history of the European immigrant but I have no conviction any justice for such savage behavior will ever occur. In fact it appears the ecosystem caretakers are losing.

    Cyd Oman
  • You make a number of excellent points, Dan, especially that we should not allow the good to be the enemy of the perfect. South Dakota of the 1850s is not returning any time soon. Your excellent and beautifully moving book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart Ranch, makes a compelling case for the wisdom of the ecologically-friendly approach to buffalo ranching that you have adopted. I wish you every continued success. We should all be pleased that the President designated the American Bison (a.k.a. Buffalo) as the national mammal.

    John
  • Yes Dan. Agreed.

    Julia Robb

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