The National Bison Legacy Act—a bipartisan bill designating the bison (also known as buffalo) as America’s official national mammal—has stampeded through both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and now awaits President Obama’s signature into law.
As North America’s largest land mammal, the buffalo would join the ranks as an iconic American symbol alongside the bald eagle. And it is the effort of a coalition of conservationists, ranchers and tribal groups that helped the bill gain traction in Congress. Several positive factors are expected to come out of the national recognition—including the preservation of the 2,500-pound beasts of the prairie for future generations and tourists to enjoy; increased education and awareness in the buffalo’s role as a sacred animal within the Native American culture and history; and continued growth in commercial interests as the demand for buffalo meat in restaurants and grocery stores rises.
Here in the Black Hills, the recognition also bodes well for our local economy. Both Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park attract thousands of annual visitors, as each is home to free-roaming bison herds. The Wind Cave herd is thought to be one of only four herds on public lands in North America that is considered genetically pure—free from the genetic dilutions of other herds as a result of cross-breeding efforts with cattle. You’ll also spot buffalo in Badlands National Park, where they inhabit the western reaches of the park’s North Unit and are best viewed from the Sage Creek Rim Road.
You can observe the rituals and sacred acts honoring the bison, or Tatanka, at any of the region’s Native America powwows and celebrations, often held throughout the summer and early fall. You’ll find the cultural impact of the bison evident in the local art scene, too. The iconic figure plays a prominent role in local photography, paintings, sculptures, pottery, and jewelry, and is strongly evidenced in its availability among local souvenirs—everything from jerky and t-shirts to keychains and plush toys.
One of South Dakota’s largest annual events is even centered around the majestic animal. The Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, entering its 51st year this September, draws thousands of attendees who line up to feel the thunder as the bison are corralled by cowboys, cowgirls and pickup trucks. As described by the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department, “Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.”
Buffalo is also considered a regional dining specialty, with several local restaurants offering one-of-a-kind, mouth-watering buffalo entrees. Many people will claim that buffalo meat tastes sweeter and richer than many high-quality cuts of beef. It’s extremely lean and nutritionally dense—packing in nearly 70% more iron than beef—and it boasts higher levels of vitamins, minerals and Beta-Carotene than some of its red meat counterparts.
With strong expectancy to be signed into law, make 2016 your year to experience the nation’s official mammal—the American Bison—here in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.
Main image courtesy of Eden Bhatta from The Tainted Tripod.