Congress Poised To Approve Bill Designating Bison As National Mammal Move over bald eagles, there's a new animal in town — bison! The National Bison Legacy Act, which designated the magnificent beasts as the national mammal, passed the House on Tuesday. The Senate is expected to pass the act later this week. NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to Germaine White, cultural specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in northwest Montana.
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Congress Poised To Approve Bill Designating Bison As National Mammal

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Congress Poised To Approve Bill Designating Bison As National Mammal

Congress Poised To Approve Bill Designating Bison As National Mammal

Congress Poised To Approve Bill Designating Bison As National Mammal

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Move over bald eagles, there's a new animal in town — bison! The National Bison Legacy Act, which designated the magnificent beasts as the national mammal, passed the House on Tuesday. The Senate is expected to pass the act later this week. NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to Germaine White, cultural specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in northwest Montana.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We have a national tree, the oak, and a national animal, the bald eagle. It looks like soon we could have a national mammal, the bison.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Some people call it the buffalo. Either way, they once roamed the plains in the tens of millions, and they played a central role in Native American tribes. Germaine White of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Northwest Montana explains.

GERMAINE WHITE: The elders have told us that bison were at the very center of our traditional way of life, so not only did they provide us food, but they also provided us shelter and clothing. And the relationship we had with them was also very important for our cultural and spiritual well-being as well as our material well-being.

CORNISH: Native Americans are just one group that's looking forward to calling the bison the national mammal. Congress is poised to pass the bill soon and send it to the president for his signature.

For more on these efforts, we turn to - of all places - the Bronx.

MCEVERS: That's where we found Pat Thomas, associate director of the Bronx Zoo. And I asked him, what do bison have to do with the Bronx?

PAT THOMAS: Well, back before my time in the early 1900s, the Bronx Zoo's first director William Hornaday assembled a group of bison aficionados that included then President Teddy Roosevelt, and they formed the American Bison Society with the sole intent of saving the American bison from extinction.

MCEVERS: I'm from Illinois, and it used to be mostly prairie which is where the bison once lived all across the Midwest. Why were bison so important to the prairie?

THOMAS: Well, they helped shape the entire ecosystem of the American grasslands. The way they grazed on grasses would impact bird species that also lived in those areas, which in turn impacted some of the mammal communities.

And bison even impacted amphibians 'cause they would - they have this behavior called wallowing, where they all kind of roll around and actually create depressions in the earth that then fill with water. And amphibians use these bison wallows that are filled with water to reproduce in. So they are really a keystone species in grassland communities.

MCEVERS: And, of course, they were very important to Native Americans.

THOMAS: They are. Culturally, they are tremendously important to Native Americans. And one of the real important reasons for the passing of the bison as a national mammal is to recognize just how culturally significant they are to Native Americans and all Americans really.

MCEVERS: So becoming the national mammal - is this ultimately a good thing for bison?

THOMAS: I think it's a great thing. They're really the first American conservation success story, and this is a species that at one time numbered between 30 and 50 million animals that man drove nearly to extinction, fewer than a thousand individuals in just over 100 years. And yet we - with a concerted effort - were able to say, you know, we're not going to let this happen. We're going to save this species.

And so today, we estimate that there are probably around 500,000 bison in North America. But there's only about 80,000 that are considered genetically-pure bison. The others have some small trace amounts of domestic cow genes in them. And so as dire as things were for bison, you know, we showed that if we want to, we can bring species back from the brink of extinction and save them.

MCEVERS: That's Pat Thomas, the vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society and an associate director at the Bronx Zoo. Thank you very much.

THOMAS: Thanks, Kelly.

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