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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  • 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.

  • Yes Dan. Agreed.

    Julia Robb
  • Tear down the fences ….not just there but all over the world. Fences are separators which leads to entitlement, and even wars. Unity, respect, tolerance….will never happen as long as there are fences Think about it. o crithe entmeoma adaimo leave my e t

  • Dan,
    So glad to see your response to the NPR comments.
    I have long valued and appreciated most of what Scott Simon has broadcast but what I heard from him regarding buffalo and our culture was very disappointing.
    I hope you can get your reply to him. I would also recommend a copy of both “Buffalo for the Broken Heart” and “Wild Idea” for an appropriate level of research into the issue by Mr. Simon.

    Michael Huwaldt
  • Well said, Dan. I agree that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.. What disturbs me most is commercialization based on the cruel feedlot model. I really appreciate the way you integrate the well-being of the bison and the Great Plains in your business. This country needs more like you.

    Ann Cairns
  • My first encounter with bison was as a child, when my mother, who was trying to feed grapes to a cow through a fence at a zoo in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, was sneezed on and drew her hand back covered in a gift she hadn’t expected. A memorable experience, but hardly in a natural setting. I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to follow a herd, at an appropriate distance, on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve with my oldest daughter and her new Nikon camera for an afternoon.
    The 45 intervening years represent an enormous change in our thinking, as a nation, of what the appropriate place for these amazing creatures is in our world. We are at a new place in our national dialogue about the buffalo that I consider an opportunity to outgrow some of our thinking about the world and our place in it. We humans as a species are just a little too clever for our own good sometimes and our big brains don’t always recognize that the instincts that drive us didn’t necessarily evolve with our personal longevity in mind.

    A wise man once wrote, “A million years of coevolution produces communities of species whose relationships are symbiotic, and that concept extends to man’s relationship to buffalo as a food source.” It’s unfortunate that, due to how clever we are, we’ve been able to so thoroughly and efficiently disrupt this process and these communities without having the slightest idea of how they work or what their value to us is, and that extends to the Native American community as well as the plains ecosystem.

    The National Bison Legacy Act, though largely symbolic, creates an opportunity for a conversation about some of our history and the consequences, both intended and unintended that have resulted. That conversation can help move us forward as a nation in recognizing the things we could have done better and make us more cautious in how we use the tremendous resources we have that took millennia to develop, as we seek a path forward that considers all constituencies and will leave a more sustainable future for the generations of all creatures that follow us.

    It is presumptuous in the extreme for us to think that any of us has the answer to relieving the angst we have over what was done in our names by our forebears or that we can somehow turn back the clock to redress the regrettable actions of our national past. It would truly be amazing to sit a horse and watch a herd of bison take days to pass by. But, time being what it is, we have only to move forward and look to each other to make progress. Collaboration and patience are the keys, much as we want it done now and think of ourselves as independent. We won’t be able to undo what it took 150 years to get to in a single lifetime. We must take the long view and inspire each other and each generation to come to do the same with the certain knowledge that we can do better. It’s the long haul. Endurance is our byword and our Native American sisters and brothers and the American Bison our example.

    Dan Dahm
  • Who is Bob Jackson? We could learn a lot from him. His article was interesting and right on. I am a customer of Wild Idea and support their efforts, that is why I ordered from them. I found them by accident because I read about them when I purchased their first book on my Nook. I have written a book about my 26 years of observing my llama herd. I took a different approach to owning llamas and allowed my llamas to create a llama family, which I have observed all these years. Animal families are smarter than we are when it comes to forming and maintaining their family units. They are intelligent and have feelings and emotions. They are loyal, protective and dependable. They teach their children well. Most of our human problems stem from the fact that we no longer maintain extended family unity. Helping the Bison maintain their family unity will greatly enhance their lives and enrich ours in ways that we can’t even imagine.

    Jeannie Brendler
  • What gets me is how we as tax payers can subsidize and bail out farmers for raising corn a high energy input crop as well as cattle which also require a lot of work and energy yet we have Bison a much healthier food source that is adapted to the environment and needs little energy input from humans to raise, especially when looking at the water crisis so many states are having and trying to raise cattle in the SW is complete stupidity, it is about time this wonderful animal is finally recognized and instead of growing corn or paying farmers NOT to plant crops this land should be reverted back to Prairie and these animals should once again be able to graze on their grasses and those ranchers who raise Bison should be the ones who get tax cuts/ subsidies Not Cattle/Corn/Soybean Farmers.

    Dennis Hink
  • I agree with your feelings and thoughts about the bison. I’m one of those who cannot fathom that two humans picked up a baby bison and gave it a ride. How crazy was that? We appreciate your attentiveness to the bison and it’s growth. We enjoy your products because you care how the animals are raised. Our Creator surely is pleased with your care of his bison and his planet.

    Judie Maxfield
  • I wish we could back to the 1840s to start over.But hindsight is always 20/20

  • As usual, Dan, you write so clearly and make the case so well for whatever we can do to give bison and the Great Plains a chance to recover, at least partially. There is no going back to what was but we can do our best to at least see to it that some of the damage is undone. For those of us who live far from the Great Plains, we need to recognize, too, that there is no going back to what was here either but there is much we can do to protect what we have left. Two books, “Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallemy, professor and chair of the Dept. of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the U. of Delaware, and “Planting in a Post-Wild World” by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, landscape architect and landscape designer respectively, show us how each of us in our own backyards can do our part to promote biodiversity and ecological balance when both are under such attack everywhere.

    Thank you, Dan, for doing such a large part to restore balance and biodiversity in our Great Plains. And the meat is great, too!

    Linda Clark
  • Débat difficile, l’ élevage des bisons, à la place des bovins, plus rentables à la vente, par effet de mode ou par conviction des consommateurs essayant de retrouver une nourriture plus saine et le respect des animaux et de la nature, peut-il rendre vie à nos prairies et à leurs habitants naturels par contre-coup en recréant les espaces sauvages ?

  • Don’t know all the issues but am firmly on the side of expansion of the Herd. There is room for us all and unfettered growth could be tempered commercially or regulated hunting programs.
    R.W. Earley,-Nuttall

    Rollie Earley
  • It’s a great thing that the Bison has been recognized as the national mammal. Even better that the benefits of grass fed Bison both for health and the environment will be recognized as time goes on. As an equine veterinarian, I’m a firm believer that so called emerging diseases in horses are a direct result of feeding genetically modified grains and nutrient depleted soils. Keep up the good work!

    Tom Griffith

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