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Friday, July 4, 2014

Our American Mammal

Happy Independence Day!

On July the Fourth, it seems that everywhere you look people are displaying the symbols of America.  There's the stars and stripes, of course, but also Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty, and, of course, our national bird - the bald eagle.  Pretty much every country has a national bird.  Far fewer have national mammals.

A small group of US politicians wants to change that, however - there is currently a proposal underway to make the American bison the official national mammal of the United States.  It's hard to imagine a better candidate.  Historically, the bison could be found in 49 out of 50 US states (no one has reported seeing any swimming out to Hawaii, alas).  Unlike many North American mammals - such as the brown bear and grey wolf - it is found only in North America (though a closely related species is found in Europe).   It has a prominent role in the culture and history of this continent, from the first nations to the expanding United States of the 1800s.  Today, it plays an increasingly important role in the economy, both through tourism and ranching.

Perhaps most importantly, the bison symbolizes our changing relationship with our environment.  We didn't accidentally almost lose the bison to extinction - our nation actively tried to destroy it.  Not only were they hunted for meats, hides, and to reduce competition for grazing lands, they were also slaughtered as an act of war.  Military leaders like General Phil Sheridan advocated for the extermination of the bison in order to starve the Plains Indians into submission.  By the late nineteenth century, the tens of millions that roamed the continent had been reduced to less than a thousand.  Some were hiding out in the loneliest patches of prairie left.  Some were in the hands of a few concerned ranchers.  And some had come under the care of an upstart new zoological park in the Bronx and its crusading director.

It wasn't an accident that the bison was almost driven to extinction.  Neither was it an accident that it was saved (which it also has in common with the bald eagle, America's national bird).  Today, the world's wildlife is facing challenges far greater than a few hide hunters.  There is worldwide loss of habitat, pollution, poaching, invasive species, and the looming specter of climate change.  At times, it can seem impossible that the outcome will be anything other than a disaster.  That's probably what folks told William Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt when they set out to save the bison.

Making the American bison our national mammal does more than give us a cool national symbol (to keep company with India's tiger, China's giant panda, and, of course, Canada's beaver).  It would recognize one of the world's first great conservation success stories (one in which zoos were directly involved, mind you), and remind everyone that there is hope for endangered species everywhere.

Besides, it's not like Congress is doing anything else useful these days anyway...

Happy Fourth of July, and Vote Bison!

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