WASHINGTON – Congress felt a lot of Buffalove last week – not for the city, but for the beast.
We should call it Bisonlove, to be more precise, because lawmakers in both the House and Senate agreed to designate the American bison the national mammal.
That means that as soon as President Barack Obama signs the bill Congress passed, the creature we’ve dubbed the buffalo will soon rank with the bald eagle as a central American symbol.
And that is just as it should be, said representatives of Native American tribes and bison ranchers and others with a strong interest in the broad-shouldered bovine that immediately brings to mind images of both the Wild West and Western New York.
“It’s the iconic species,” said Jim Stone, executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a coalition of Native American tribes that works to return the once-endangered species to Indian country. “Buffalo did more for this continent than any other species did.”
Jeffrey S. Goodyear, president of Maple Ridge Bison Ranch in Cattaraugus County, couldn’t agree more.
“I think it’s long overdue,” Goodyear said.
His ranch sells a wide variety of bison meat products, which are generally far lower in fat than beef.
Goodyear noted that the bill’s passage is a fitting tribute to a species that was nearly extinct a century ago, but that’s now being restored to its native territory as well as to ranches such as his.
The move also might be seen as a boost to Buffalo – the city, that is.
“It’s another acknowledgement of the full force of the Buffalo renaissance,” Rep. Brian Higgins wryly noted. “It’s beginning to transcend geography. It’s going national and international.”
Of course, Higgins would have more reason to celebrate if his hometown were named “Bison.” But it’s not, and nobody really knows why it’s named Buffalo.
It’s possible the city took its name from the Buffalo River, which French fur traders called “Beau Fleuve” – beautiful river – centuries before there were brightly lit grain elevators there. Then again, historians believe the buffalo roamed as far east as Buffalo at one time, so it’s also possible that the city is named after the animal after all.
In any case, the creature became the city’s symbol even though it would be more precise to call the big-headed beast by its proper name – the American bison – said Malia Somerville, general curator at the Buffalo Zoo, which is home to three of the animals.
Over time, the term “buffalo” has come to cover a variety of related species, although scientists regard the narrow-shouldered Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo the real, true buffaloes.
That being the case, when discussing the creature that’s become the city’s symbol, “it’s not incorrect to say buffalo, but it is more specific to say bison,” Somerville said.
Buffalo has reason to celebrate the American bison’s newfound status, she said.
“It’s such a big part of the history of North America,” she said.
That’s why Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota pushed the national mammal designation through the Senate.
“The bison, like the bald eagle, has for many years been a symbol of America for its strength, endurance and dignity, reflecting the pioneer spirit of America,” Hoeven said. “This is a fitting designation that recognizes the important cultural and economic role the bison has played in our nation’s history.”
Scientists estimate that as many as 30 million bison once ranged across much of the continent, but that number dwindled to less than 1,000 by the late 1800s due to decades of over-hunting – including a government policy to slaughter the creatures en masse as part of the effort to push Native Americans onto reservations.
Proof of that was published in the Army Navy Journal in 1969, which reported that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had said that “the quickest way to compel the Indians to settle down to civilized life was to send ten regiments of soldiers to the plains, with orders to shoot buffaloes until they became too scarce to support the redskins.”
The government’s attitude toward the bison started to change, though, when a former Western rancher and conservationist became president. Alarmed at the bison’s near-extinction, President Theodore Roosevelt teamed up with the Bronx Zoo and others in 1905 to form the American Bison Society, which aimed to create wild bison reserves.
That and other efforts have led to something of a bison renaissance; the World Conservation Society now estimates there are about 500,000 American bison on the continent, although 90 percent of them are contained on ranches.
“The National Mammal declaration not only recognizes the historic role of bison in America, it celebrates the resurgence of bison as an important part of the American environment, diet, and an emerging part of the agricultural economy,” said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.”
Stone said the idea for the designation came up as the InterTribal Buffalo Council worked with the National Bison Association and the World Conservation Society to establish a National Bison Day to promote the bison’s contributions to American history and culture. Planning the first event in 2012, Keith Aune of the World Conservation Society did some research and discovered there was no national mammal.
So in addition to establishing National Bison Day as the first Saturday in November, the three groups found lawmakers on Capitol Hill to push legislation to honor the American bison.
Aune, who originated the idea, was thrilled.
“Finally we are placing this symbolic creature in proper perspective by recognizing its many values to the American people both past and present,” said Aune, senior conservationist and bison program coordinator at the World Conservation Society.
The bison’s value is especially precious to Native Americans, whose forefathers lived alongside the bison herds they depended on in innumerable ways – and who died alongside them, too.
In fact, Stone likened the national mammal designation to the plan to put the image of abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
“It kind of shows some willingness to accept some of the darker stories the country went through,” said Stone, a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer acknowledged that history, but said the designation has special meaning to people from Buffalo, too.
“Buffalonians are brought up to appreciate the legacy of the bison,” he said, “and the resurgence of its population in the west is an apt metaphor for the resurgence of the City of Buffalo.”