The bison now holds one of America's most revered positions in society. The fuzzy, horned giant is a national symbol, standing aside the bald eagle, after President Obama signed a bill into law Monday making it our national mammal.
The recognition of the bison is also a recognition of a conservation success story unlike any other in America, a rare bipartisan moment in Washington and a brief, if not symbolically important, nod to our bloody, complicated past.
"No other indigenous species tells America’s story better than this noble creature," Rep. Lacy Clay, a progressive Missouri Democrat who sponsored the bill that passed the Republican-controlled Congress, said in a statement recently. "The American bison is an enduring symbol of strength, Native American culture and the boundless western wildness."
But aside from the symbolism, not much will change about how we Americans interact with bison. The law has a provision saying as much: Native Americans can still hunt them, ranchers will still ranch them, zoos will still harbor them and, yes, people can still eat them.
None of that is necessarily a bad thing, said John Calvelli, an executive vice president with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Ranchers, wildlife experts, politicians and Native American groups were actually pretty much in agreement that this animal needs to be honored. It's just that every group has its own idea about how to do that, and that's fine.
"Bison are a connection to healthy communities," Calvelli said. "This law brings this all together into something that is a bit more coherent. ... Maybe we'll all feel a bit more patriotic when we eat a bison burger," he added.
Bison and all they represent are clearly having a moment — some would say a long-overdue one. But given most of us aren't bison ranchers or regular eaters (except once in Colorado; it was delicious), let's take a moment to reflect on what we can and can't do with bison, America's newest favorite animal:
Can't: Just kill them
By now you've heard the stories or recall them from history class. As settlers expanded into the West in the 1800s, bison were nearly made extinct. Killing bison was a deliberate attempt to flush Native Americans out of the frontier and onto reservations, since bison were a major food source for the tribes. Tourists could even pay to shoot and kill bison through the windows of trains, writes The Washington Post's Elahe Izadi.
The devastation was real. In the early 1800s, there were about 30 million bison in the United States, stretching from Alaska to the Mexican border. By the time Congress made it illegal to kill bison in 1894, there were fewer than 1,000. Teddy Roosevelt, a frontiersman in his own right, led a conservation effort to nurse them back to health at the Bronx Zoo and ship them out west. It worked. Today there are bison in all 50 states and close to 5,000 in Yellowstone National Park.
It's still illegal to shoot and kill bison without a permit. The exception to that latter rule is Native American lands. Ranchers, wildlife experts and Native American groups are working to increase the number of bison on reservations to help these communities return to their ancestral tradition of hunting and eating bison. Calvelli said they've identified about 1 million acres of reservation land they want to bring bison onto for this purpose.
Can't: Save all of them either
Caretakers in Yellowstone, one of the largest U.S. habitats for bison, have to follow strict rules about keeping bison population in check. And, yes, that means they kill bison or send them to the slaughterhouses.
From January to August 2015, some 200 bison that wandered off park grounds were rounded up and shot by hunters, reports The Post's Joby Warrick. Another 500 during that time frame were chased onto trucks by government workers and shipped to slaughterhouses, he writes.
"It is hard to watch,” acknowledged Rick Wallen, Yellowstone’s lead wildlife biologist for bison, to Warrick. “But we do it as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
There is an effort to rewrite the rules of how many bison can live where, but it's likely that culling will continue to be a regular part of the process to keep bison populations healthy.
Can: Eat them
Speaking of healthy, bison meat is apparently quite good for you. It's filled with iron and has a lower fat content and calorie count than other meat.
And it's nearly universally declared delicious, even by some wildlife conservationists.
"Biology did them a solid. They are incredibly resilient, and they taste good," said Calvelli, who copped to eating a bison steak. (Clay said he's had them before but prefers ground beef and turkey burgers.)
In restaurants, grocery stores and at bison ranches across the nation, you can buy bison meat and cook it the way you would other meaty delicacies. Here's a listicle of the best bison meat recipes from Nebraska Bison.
Can: Go see them
You can go visit Yellowstone, or you can just go to your local zoo. Bison are in zoos in 49 out of 50 states, including in Washington. For the first time in more than a century, the National Zoo welcomed back bison in 2014 — Wilma and Zora.
Can't: Selfie with them
Or more accurately, you most definitely should not. In July 2015, a tourist in Yellowstone was gored while posing with bison in the background. It actually happens a lot. From The Washington Post's Michael Miller:
According to a 2000 study, Yellowstone’s bison are actually more dangerous than its bears. The study found that bison had charged people 81 times over 22 years, killing two. The park’s grizzly bears, meanwhile had injured 30 and killed two, the AP reported.
Ever heard a car crash from close range? Calvelli said two bison crashing into each other sounds a lot like that. Better to view our new national mammal from a safe distance.
Can: Learn about Native American culture through bison
When the bison — and by default Native Americans — were run off the frontier, so was Native American culture and their contributions to building this nation. This bill is an effort to pause and honor that, Clay said.
"Native Americans' stories and contributions to the fabric of American society have not been told honestly. And so this bill is part of an effort to tell that untold story."
Now, when school children learn about their new national mammal, they'll also learn about its relationship to the conquering of the West. It's not always an easy story to hear, but it's an important one, say its supporters.