The bald eagle could be joined by the bison as the United States’ national animals, if a group of senators, including those from the Dakotas, have their way.
“I can think of no more noble an animal to name as the official mammal of the United States,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a news release Wednesday announcing that he and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., had introduced a bill to make that happen.
The National Bison Legacy Act is co-sponsored by 12 other senators, including Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John Thune, R-S.D.
Lawmakers and backers of the bill say the designation would pay tribute to the important role bison play in the nation’s history, as well as its culture, ecology and commerce.
Before American settlers expanded west, millions of bison roamed the Great Plains, playing a central role in American Indian life. The animal provided everything from meat for food, hides for clothing to droppings for fuel.
By the 1800s, the bison had been hunted to near extinction. Some scholars say the United States encouraged the animal to be slaughtered to weaken Indians, while others say unregulated hunting was to blame.
Then-President Teddy Roosevelt, who often visited North Dakota, sought to protect the bison. He formed the American Bison Society, which sent 15 of the animals to the nation’s first wildlife refuge in 1907.
Today, the Intertribal Buffalo Council, a group of 58 tribes working to revive tribal bison culture, is a supporter of the Bison Legacy bill.
“The tribes want to... reintroduce it back into the ceremonies they perform and get it back into the diets of tribal members,” said Executive Director Jim Stone.
The National Bison Association, which represents bison meat producers, also supports the bill. Last year, bison meat sales reached almost $280 million.
“At the center of this circle is this beautiful animal that we all love and want to conserve,” said Executive Director Dave Carter.
A version of the bill was originally introduced in 2012, but it stalled.
Carter said that he has not encountered any opposition to it recently.