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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  • I don’t understand this very well but I need my buffalo meat. We can’t capture or raise the bald eagle bc it’s a National emble. If the bison is the National mammal, we’re not going to be able to legally eat it. I need it for health reasons. Do I write to my Senator? Thank you.

    Maricela from Texas
  • Thanks for putting some perspective into the “greenwashing” discussion.

    Wayne Fischer
  • Agree with 100%. City folk don’t know practical things about animals, they just know what books and media tell them.

    Patricia Griffin
  • I live on the west coast of California. However, I have been blessed to have driven across the country several times and weep each time I see the vast scars from mining, oil and commercial farming that have marred our Great Plains of the Central United States. I applaud Wild Idea and the other humane ranchers who protect and harvest our native Bison. In turn, you help to preserve, protect, rejuvenate, not only the wildlife, flora and fauna of the region, but bring new life to our indigenous peoples through providing income beyond the casinos that currently seem to be what we associate with the American Indian these days here in California. It’s about time our politicians got off their duffs and saluted the creature that contributed its very existence to the western expansion of our country! Thank you for your wonderful article and great love and work for the Bison.

    Sandy Pearsall
  • Well said, Dan!

    Jo Ann Hajek
  • Dan: In part I agree with you as to your critique of what is going on. Where maybe I disagree is your view,apparantely that the current reality must be accepted.. My view is that a much greater effort needs to be made toward free-ranging wildlife of all kinds including buffalo as Wildlife rather than domesticated as is the current situation for the most part in this country. Under our historical and current system of Capitalism that obviously will not happen though folks will no doubt continue to enjoy view ing and eating the meat.

    Jim Herrick
  • We were thrilled with the news. We live on the Oregon Coast and spend some of our summer at Hart Ranch, South Dakota. Bison are one of the animals that “speak to our souls.” We appreciate the way you are raising them and applaud your efforts to make a diverse, sustainable land for these magnificent beasts. Thank you for your work.
    It’s time bison were recognized.

    D. Brockway
  • Thanks for your usual thoughtful articulation of what needs to be said.

    J. Frank Papovich
  • A few inputs. Yes, bison were abundant on the Plains, but their native “home” was much larger than this. In fact not near as many bison per acre could be sustained “on the Plains”. The land was very good for them in the Mid West. It is just the amount of civilization (people numbers), kept these numbers down. Additionally all bison have the same extended family makeup as elephants. and all families have HOMES. And in this home (territory) this family best lived and protected from competing bison families. and it was all these thousands of of families that made up the Plains population. population control on bison didn’t have to be dependent on predators. Nice yes, but not essential. The better family out competed the other family and this not so strong family died out through the generations. You say why wouldn’t that strong family just keep increasing in numbers. Because it has to do with interactive recognition. Up to around 300 is max whether elk, chimpanzees or bison.
    It was with indiscriminate hunting by Indian immigrants from the East …and white hunters that destroyed these homes. Then it was moving refuge camps of bison ..then vast numbers of millions, all dysfunctional families at best, that made up non sustainable …with a lot of environmental short comings. Fences have little to do with functioning bison families and ecological sustainability. Thus the Plains were not necessary for those multiples of families. It was necessary, however for those millions of bison in refugee camps to keep moving over large lands…desperate to find homes that didn’t have all the killing going on. They never found it.
    Yes, nice to have lots of families, but no need to have those hundreds of thousands of acres biologists think are necessary for those bison. To me a bison herd of 10,000 dysfunctional bison is not near as environmentally compatible as 2 extended families of 200 animals each.

    And dysfunctional bison are essentially grassivores, not Herbivores. They don’t learn what to eat because their families are busted up. There is little if any teaching. Thus, they have to concentrate on survivalist grasses, not harvesting select nutrient rich parts of broad leave community.
    And any bison herd without the 40% male component is also not sustainable to the ecosystem. Those males eat coarser vegetation. Thus new growth for nutrient heavy needs …pregnant cows and growing young. Male bull groups are also a part of each extended matriarchal female component. Those males have the same roles as human males and without the very important protective role …and mentors to young, the meat is not the same. I don’t care if it is grass fed or grain dysfunctional animals…they build up a lot more stress in those bodies. Thus acids and tougher meat the older that bison gets. The "perfect is ATTAINABLE in your herd at Wild Idea. You just need to change harvesting methods. Let families form up. Take out entire families and leave well infrastructure families intact. Forget harvesting select individuals out of those families you do not now have. And I very much suggest you quit killing those animals in the herds. It is very traumatizing for the rest of those bison seeing this death. You say they don’t seem to mind. Well think of the Holocaust and how the camp commander shot 1 or 2 Jews each morning. No one ran. Why? it was hopeless. No place to get away. But think of all that internal stress building up in both those concentration camp and in those bison on your ranch.

    If you had functional herds you can take out whole bull groups, spin off satellite extended families. forget size of the animal. all sizes match with same ages and size of the meat recipients. And since each family and bull group is separate from the other families and bull groups, stress is not there during harvesting. What I suggest is not different than how long time resident Indians hunted. Your meat will be fresher, cleaner tasting and that meat from older animals still will have tender steaks.
    As for Yellowstone that was the home to Mt. Bison….just like all bison of the mts. They were a lot warier because they could get trapped in drainages. Thus not near as many to be seen when there was much of any hunting pressure.
    Enough for now. bob Jackson

    bob jackson
  • Thanks for being a calm voice of reason in this debate. And for showing through your practice your care and love for this great beast and the environment we share.

    Bob Park
  • Dan:

    I totally agree with you. Everything is a compromise. Just getting more public attention to our national symbol is a good thing in itself, and commercialisation is not necessarily bad. Raising more genetically impure bison and feeding them GMO food in feedlots is bad, but more public attention to this situation is bound to bring improvement, as there is mainstream concern these days about unhealthy ways in which our food is grown, as well as mainstream concern about inhumane conditions in which animals are kept.

    Nothing is perfect and it may take a while to get there, but we are moving ahead in educating the public about preserving the environment, the bison’s rightful place in the environment, it’s place as our national symbol, and it’s place on our dinner tables. In the process, native people, the general public, and our future is benefitting from this effort and the open attitudes towards change. Thank you so much for your leadership role in this important effort.

    Linda from Minneapolis

    Linda Huhn

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