“Bison production on private ranches now contributes significantly to our economy.”
A bison calf celebrates the news.
Trader Joe’s might want to jack up the price of its frozen Buffalo Burgers. Congress just came to a rare quiet consensus to pass the National Bison Legacy Act, which makes the bison (a.k.a. buffalo) the first national mammal of the U.S. This does not mean the Bald Eagle—who declined to comment for this piece—has had its throne usurped. They will be peacefully co-serving as national emblem and national mammal.
Still, it’s an important symbolic gesture on behalf of the nation responsible for nearly wiping bison out in the first place. The bison was essential to the livelihood of Native Americans, who were able to kill only the bison they needed for meat, then use the hair and bone for other purposes. As PBS noted in promotion of their American Buffalo: Spirit of a Nation documentary, “For thousands of years the huge bison herds were able to accommodate the loss of the relatively few animals taken by Native Americans.” Then settlers came in, creating a bison meat trade as well as allowing tourists to shoot them from trains. By 1880, there were only thousands of bison left from the millions that once freely roamed.
This act doesn’t bestow any new protections upon the mammal, but the goal is to draw attention to how important they are to the ecology and history of our vast United States. As The Guardian notes, they “once performed a key role in ecosystems by tearing up vegetation to allow new plants to grow.”
Farming and production of bison as livestock is a rather big business and was also one of the motivating factors pushing the passage of this act, which could raise the profile of the animal for culinary purposes. There are now 30,000 wild bison roaming the plains, while a whopping 400,000 are kept as livestock to make bison jerky, steaks, and of course those Trader Joe’s burgers. Organic burger chain Bareburger features bison as a popular option on their menu, and it’s actually the most expensive of their 10 patty options; it’s more lean than beef and has a pretty high iron content, making it very appealing to all those Crossfit-obsessed paleo folks.
“Bison production on private ranches now contributes significantly to our economy. The total value of privately owned bison on more than 2,600 ranches across the country was estimated at $280 million in 2013,” John Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, wrote for National Geographic last year. “Grazed naturally on the open plains, bison provide both a sustainable and healthy meat source and good jobs.”
President Obama still needs to sign the act in order for the national mammal designation to be official, so don’t rush to open an artisanal bison jerky business branded with the presidential seal just yet—but definitely get to recipe testing.