The designation of national mammal is part of the effort to “prevent the bison from going extinct and to recognize the bison’s ecological, cultural, historical and economic importance to the United States.” But will it truly help in their conservation? ©Ben Forbes

We now have a national mammal, and it’s Bison bison. On Monday, May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, honoring American bison with this first-ever designation.

It’s easy to think that this is reason to be happy for America’s largest land mammal (Bison bison includes Plains bison [Bison bison bison] and wood bison [Bison bison athabascae]). It seems bison have now, finally, reached a lofty status alongside that of the bald eagle, which has been our national bird and emblem since 1782.

I’m not so sure, however, if this is a real “victory” for bison. If history tells us anything, it’s that we tend to almost destroy our national symbols; those animals that we name to represent and define us.

Rather than a triumph, this may be more of a case of “bison beware.” 

There may have been as many as 500,000 bald eagles in North America in the 1700s. ©Eric Rock

Banishing bald eagles

The idea for using the native bald eagle to symbolize America was proposed in 1782. According to the U.S. National Archives, a drawing of the eagle was presented to the newly formed Congress, which immediately accepted the plan. Olive branches and 13 arrows (representing peace and war) were included in the eagle’s talons. Since then, the bald eagle has served as the icon for the United States.

In the 1700s, biologists estimate that there may have been between 300,000 and 500,000 of the birds living in the wild. But farmers considered them vermin and shot them on sight. As people started moving west, nesting territories and food sources—such as waterfowl and shorebirds—for bald eagles diminished. By the late 1800s, bald eagles were scarce.

After World War II, the widespread use of the pesticide DDT made things worse. The chemical seeps into waterways and collects in fish, which are the main ingredient in a bald eagle’s diet. Plants sprayed with DDT were eaten by small animals, which in turn were eaten by eagles. Both the adult birds and their eggs were affected. Eggshells were too thin to withstand incubation and were crushed (or simply did not hatch). Large quantities of DDT were found in the fatty tissues of dead eagles; and by 1963, bald eagle numbers in the Lower 48 had plummeted to a mere 417 nesting pairs. They were placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 1978.

Early settlers thought the “buffalo” of the American West would never be depleted. ©Colin McNulty

While listing helped the bird recover, the banning of DDT in 1972 was the biggest factor in their comeback. The Department of the Interior delisted them on June 28, 2007. Today, there are a total of about 70,000 bald eagles in North America (including Alaska and Canada).

Banning bison

The story of the American bison is similar to that of the bald eagle. At the beginning of the 19th century, 20 to 30 million bison roamed North America. In 1871, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge stated that “the whole country appeared one great mass of buffalo” and that they moved in herds “as irresistible as an avalanche.” The sound of their hooves was often compared to the rumbling of thunder.

By the late 1880s, bison had been hunted to near extinction throughout North America. Yellowstone National Park was the only place where bison were not extirpated in the United States. Today’s Yellowstone herd is descended from a remnant population of just 23 individuals that survived the mass slaughter by hiding out in the Pelican Valley of the park.


Today, Yellowstone’s free-roaming bison are believed to be genetically pure because they descended from pocket herds that escaped the great slaughter of the late 19th century. They were secreted away in the upper headwaters of the Yellowstone River, deep in the park’s interior.

Today, approximately 500,000 bison live across North America, most in captivity. And the majority of them are not pure wild bison. They have been crossbred with cattle and are semidomesticated after being raised for many generations as livestock on ranches. Fifty-one thousand bison, the world’s largest private herd, belong to CNN founder Ted Turner and are used to supply his more than 40 restaurants, which serve bison meat.

About 20,000 wild bison roam on public lands in the U.S. and Canada. Only about 5,000 are unfenced and still residing in Yellowstone National Park.

Not-so-good naming

The fine print of the National Bison Legacy Act reads: “Nothing in this Act or the adoption of the North American bison as the national mammal of the United States shall be construed or used as a reason to alter, change, modify, or otherwise affect any plan, policy, management decision, regulation, or other action by the Federal Government.”

Being named a national icon of any sort may not be healthy for a species. ©Eric Rock

By no means, then, is the new act an end to the slaughter and culling of bison in Yellowstone.

I have come to the conclusion that being named a national bird, emblem, symbol, mammal or any other official national designation may not be so good for the health of a species. I wish I could say it was otherwise.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,