| U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Buffalo bill awaits Obama's signature

A bipartisan bill designating the buffalo as America’s national mammal stampeded through both houses of Congress last week and is now headed for President Obama’s desk.

The National Bison Legacy Act gained traction with the help of three groups that value the buffalo – North America’s largest land animal – but from somewhat different frames of reference: Native Americans want to preserve their culture, which values the buffalo as a sacred animal; conservationists are interested in preserving the majestic 2,500-pound beasts for future generations and tourists to enjoy; and commercial interests sell a growing amount of buffalo meat to restaurants and grocery stores.

“It will go to the White House, and we don’t have any doubt that the president will sign this,” Dave Carter, the executive director of the National Bison Association, told AMI Newswire.

Supporters of the bill say it will help in efforts to educate students about the role of the buffalo in American history and American Indian life and lead to increased herd numbers nationwide. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, up to 30 million bison once dominated the Great Plains, where they became an ecological force that maintained grasslands as they horned out invasive trees.

But westward expansion of the United States led to the near extinction of the buffalo as their numbers dwindled to below 1,000 animals in the wild, the conservation society reports. Today, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just over 162,000 head of bison were in private hands in the United States.

Indeed, the buffalo are roaming in pastures nationwide, from Santa Catalina Island just off the coast of Los Angeles to farms near Albany, N.Y.

“The bill has now been presented to the president for signature,” Kami Capener, a spokesman for one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), told AMI Newswire, “but we have yet to receive word on the timing.”

The Senate approved a version of the buffalo bill in December. The House passed its rendition of the bill April 26, and senators backed the House bill two days later in a chamber where – at least in the case of this bill – seldom was heard a discouraging word.

Jim Stone, executive director of the Intertribal Buffalo Council in South Dakota, told AMI Newswire that he saw the effort to honor the buffalo as somewhat parallel to the movement to put abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a former slave, on the $20 bill. Both movements, he said, are recognition that Americans are now willing to talk about and face up to their history.

“Native Americans and buffalo have been intertwined since time immemorial,” Stone said. Historically, American Indians hunted free-range buffalo for meat as well as hides to make culturally authentic drums and clothing, plus horns to craft implements, such as spoons, he said.

The bill should help increase the numbers of bison on Native American lands so that tribes can ensure the animal will continue to be part of traditional diets and cultures, Stone said, adding that the council represents 63 tribes in 19 states.

“The buffalo probably exceeds the standing of the bald eagle in the United States,” he said. “Bison is a cross-cultural, bipartisan, iconic species.”

The bison association’s Carter is bullish – or, as others in his group might say, “buffalo-ish” – on the future of bison meat. When the USDA began tracking the price of buffalo meat in 2004, producers were receiving $1.60 a pound, he said; n the past month, they earned $4.30 a pound.

“Health food stores have brought us to the party,” Carter said, “But bison is now in Costco and grocery stores. It’s more in the major mainstream markets.”

Although the bison association is focused on the humane and sustainable use of buffalo in agriculture, Carter said the bill to make the buffalo the national mammal recognizes all aspects of the animal.

“We got together with the conservation society and tribal folks, and we each come at bison from a little different perspective,” he said. “At the heart of it, though, is this animal that we all respect.”

May 5, 10:04 a.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this article was accompanied by a photo of the wrong animal. It was of an African cape buffalo, not an American bison. The image has been replaced.