The United States has a national bird, of course — the bald eagle, which was adopted as such on June 20, 1782. Last week, Senator Mike Enzi, a Republican of Wyoming, and Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat of South Dakota, introduced a bill to name the North American bison as the national mammal. It is hard to think of a better or more deserving creature for that distinction.
The bison is already a part of America’s official iconography. It appears on the obverse of the buffalo nickel, a much-loved coin minted from 1913 to 1938. And, in hindsight, we can see the tragic parallel between the eagle and the bison. The founding fathers could not have known that the eagle would nearly become extinct, partly because of the spread of DDT. Nor could anyone who saw the immense North American herds of bison imagine that they would nearly be hunted out by the 1880s, which was a disaster for the species, for the ecosystem that bison shaped and for American Indians, who depended on bison. At one time, they numbered fewer than 1,000 animals.