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LBL Wildlife Report: America's New National Mammal, The Bison

American bison
Arturo de Frias Marques
Wikimedia Commons
The United States Congress officially named the American bison as the national mammal in April of 2016.

In the next installment of the Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Report, Tracy Ross and John Pollpeter discuss two American symbols: the bison and bald eagle. One of which, Pollpeter explains, was once at risk of extinction.

"In the last few years, Congress passed that the American bison will be the U.S. national mammal. I can't think of a better symbol of America, as far as mammals are concerned. It really symbolizes a lot of the history that went on in this country and the different cultures that are represented in the U.S.," Pollpeter begins.

The United States has never had a national mammal. But Congress felt the American bison was the best representative, "particularly for the Indigenous people who were so dependent upon it in many of their cultures," Pollpeter explains. "It fit us pretty well here."

"In the middle of the 19th century, [the bison] was the most common large mammal in the world. Eighty million of them were on the Western plains. Daniel Boone, when he came to Kentucky, he was following a bison path. [Bison] have quite a bit of history associated with the people that were here before European settlement and during European settlement."

By the end of the 19th century, the bison population was dwindling. "I think it got down to about 35 animals at that time," Pollpeter says. "There was a big push at the turn of the century to really bring them back, including people like Theodore Roosevelt."

"They wanted to bring this symbol of the U.S. back from the brink," he continues. "Luckily, they have. They've done a very good job. Bison are no longer endangered. There are plenty of them in private hands, but also national parks and Indigenous reservations as well as state parks, including here at Land Between the Lakes."

Pollpeter explains why he thinks a bison is an appropriate U.S. symbol. "It weighs a ton. It stands about six feet at the shoulder. It can run 35 miles per hour, jump six feet, so it has a lot of power behind this thing. They are kind of a big lawnmower."

"The reason why they have that big skull and big hump on their back is because one of the things they do is eat a lot of grass. Being a grazer, they have to have strong jaw muscles. But that hump also helps them be able to survive through some of those cold prairie winters. They can bulldoze some of that snow across so they can get to the grass line. It's a very powerful animal."

Bison have now joined the ranks of the bald eagle, which has been the U.S. national bird since 1782. Not all the founding fathers approved of this sharp-eyed choice.

"Benjamin Franklin had his own ideas," Pollpeter says. "He didn't like the eagle because the eagle will often steal food from other birds, like osprey. It will also scavenge. He didn't like that as our symbol." Instead, Franklin believed the wild turkey was the best candidate for national bird.

"But to me, I'm kind of glad. It's hard for me to see Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon and saying, 'the turkey has landed.' I just think the eagle was a little bit more glorious," Pollpeter laughs.

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