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America is ‘where the buffalo roam’

Bison appropriate as ‘national mammal’

By Walt Braun

We’re not sure the United States needs an official mammal, having gotten along pretty well for more than 230 years without one. But if in its intermittent wisdom,  Congress decides a national mammal is appropriate, the American bison — better known as the buffalo — is the easy call.

We think so not just because the bison is the official mammal of Kansas, and has been since 1955.  (It’s also the state mammal of Wyoming and Oklahoma). The bison also graces our state seal and our state flag (and Wyoming’s) and is featured on our commemorative quarter. It’s also on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s seal.

As U.S. Sen. Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, said in introducing the National Bison Legacy Act into the Senate last Friday, “The North American bison is an enduring symbol of America, its people and its way of life.”

Not surprisingly, the proposal is supported by lawmakers from other Western and Midwestern states, including Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota — all places where the buffalo has been known to roam. Less predictable, but still welcome, is the support of Rhode Island, whose lawmakers apparently recognize what a sensible idea the National Bison Legacy Act is. The effort also is sponsored by the Intertribal Buffalo Council, which consists of 57 tribes, and the National Bison Association.

It’s too bad bison didn’t have this many friends in the second half of the 19th century. That was when the impressive creature, essential to the Plains tribes for food, clothing and shelter, was all but wiped out by white hunters. The bison population, once estimated in the tens of millions, fell to about 1,000 at the end of the 19th century.

Conservationists, not the least of whom was President Theodore Roosevelt, helped prevent bison from becoming extinct. Now there are about 20,000 bison in wild herds and another 500,000 are in commercial herds.

Importantly, designation as the national mammal has more to do with recognition and respect than with added protection for the animals. Moreover, it wouldn’t challenge the bald eagle, which the Second Continental Congress in 1782 declared the national emblem.

About the only reason for this bill not to become law is that Congress has a thousand and one more important issues to address. Then again, most of those will be sources of partisan conflict.

Naming the bison the national mammal is something they ought to be able to agree on with minimal debate.

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