The American bison has been an enduring symbol of the United States since before the founding of the nation. Though we think of bison as primarily a western animal, there were plenty of bison in the east. The first bison ever seen by early settlers was in what is now Washington DC!
In spite of its iconic significance, we almost caused the extinction of the bison from rampant over-hunting. Today, wild bison are found in only a few locations in the west, but the herds are expanding and there are efforts to restore bison to many areas.
Congress has seen fit to raise the status of the bison by naming it the US National Mammal. The President is expected to sign the National Bison Legacy Act soon.
Bison created the woodland pasture ecosystem of the Bluegrass and Nashville Basin. There were huge bison herds at the time Europeans came to settle here. By 1810, all the bison had been eliminated. The bison were critical to the creation of the woodland pastures that were here in 1779, and their elimination has largely prevented our venerable tree species (bur, Shumard and chinkapin oaks, kingnut and blue ash) from reproducing.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the American bison in the Bluegrass. There are now quite a few farms with bison herds, ranging from a few individuals to hundreds. It is a real pleasure to see these great animals in Bluegrass pastures once again. Now, we have the added pleasure of seeing the national mammal in our midst.
Bison or buffalo? The taxonomy of our national mammal
Should we call them bison or buffalo? Although there is a long history of calling our national mammal buffalo, American bison is the preferred term. Why? In most of the world, the word buffalo refers to a rather different mammal, the water buffalo, a domesticated mammal. Bison are classified in the genus Bos, the same genus as cattle. The American bison is Bos bison bison, while the European bison (also called wisent) is Bos bison bonasus. The water buffalo is in a different genus, Bubalus. So, to avoid confusion, the preferred name of our national mammal is the American bison.