Primarily a grassland animal, bison will graze for a period of time before resting and chewing cud. While the bison population has grown to approximately 500,000, the majority have interbred with domestic cattle. Several locations, including Yellowstone National Park, still have populations of pure lineage. Photo by Dan Williams, New Mexico Wildlife magazine, NMDGF.

Iconic mammal takes center stage

It took 240 years, but the United States finally has a national mammal: the bison.

Fans of the bald eagle have no need to fear; the national animal since 1782 has not been replaced. Instead, the bison joins other national symbols such as the oak as the national tree and the rose as the national flower.

Already the state mammal in Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming, the bison’s national designation became official May 9 when President Obama signed it into law.

“There were many potential animals to choose from, but the bison is a great choice,” said Elise Goldstein, assistant chief of the Wildlife Division of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. “They are large, powerful animals not to be trifled with.”

Had it not been for the efforts of former President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist William Hornaday, the bison might not have survived into the 21st century. The two formed the American Bison Society to save the animal from demise.
“Unregulated and market hunting, along with introduced disease from domesticated cattle, sent bison numbers plummeting,” Goldstein said. “The population dropped from historical highs in the millions down to just a few hundred.”

Market hunting, which has been outlawed for over a century, was particularly devastating to the herds. Since protections went into place, bison numbers slowly have improved, with the population now estimated at approximately 500,000.

However, few of those are of pure lineage. With few exceptions, such as those found in Yellowstone National Park, most of the bison seen today have interbred with domestic cattle. Despite this fact, visually distinguish-ing between the two bison is virtually impossible.

Bison are the largest land mammal in North America, with the adult males standing up to 6 feet tall and weighing around a ton. Despite their size, they are known to reach speeds up to about 35 mph and can jump.

Although herbivores, bison can be unpredictable and are responsible for numerous dangerous encounters.

The current designation will not affect the bison’s status and they can still be hunted in areas where legal hunting is permitted.

About Zen Mocarski

Zen Mocarski was the New Mexico Wildlife Magazine Editor for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.