Buffaloed: It’s been a bison all along

The cowboy who sings “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam” had better think about moving to Asia or Africa. The fact is that there are no buffalo in the United States.

This startling information came to light when President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act. This legislation names the bison as our national mammal.

It’s a good thing, and perhaps a little late in coming. After all, we have had a national bird for 234 years. It was in 1782 that the Continental Congress chose the bald eagle to represent the new nation.

I would like to think that the president signed this law knowing that Indiana is making a big deal of the bison this year. This iconic creature has become the face of our state’s 200th birthday celebration. It is the bicentennial, or, as it is turning out, the bison-tennial.

The Official State Seal of Indiana has been in use even before statehood, and prominent on the seal is a bison jumping over a log.

Yes, there were bison in Indiana in the old days. They provided Native Americans and pioneers with meat for the table and fur and hides for clothing and many other uses. The bison also made some of the first trails, or “traces,” through the thick Hoosier forest.

Like most of us, you have probably called the bison a buffalo. It is a bit disconcerting to learn that we have been incorrect all these years. There have never been buffalo in the United States.

Buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. Those animals have much larger horns than bison. They also do not have a hump.

A bison has a hump and a massive head. It is the largest land mammal in North America, topping the scales at around 2,000 pounds. You might think that an animal weighing a ton might be a little slow on its feet. Not so. A bison can get up and go at about 35 miles per hour.

The United States has always been aware of the bison. It is estimated that there were 30 million in North America in the 18th century. Massive hunting decimated the herds so much that by the beginning of the 20th century there were only a few hundred left. Historians estimate that in 1872 alone, 5,000 bison were killed every day.

President Theodore Roosevelt realized what was happening and helped form the American Bison Society. This organization worked to save the bison from extinction. The result was the National Bison Range in Montana. Today the National Park Service reports that there are about 30,000 bison in public and private herds in North America.

We have honored the bison in many ways. Those of a certain age can remember the buffalo nickel. Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show thrilled thousands of spectators around the world.

Even before President Obama named the bison the national mammal, it was the official state mammal of three states: Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming. It also appears on the state flags of Wyoming and Kansas.

Indiana has no official mammal. However, if there is an unofficial one, it would undoubtedly be the bison. You are going to see a lot of them this year. There are life-sized plastic replicas appearing all over the state. These big bison stand five feet tall, and there is at least one in each county. Some communities have several.

They are delivered in a solid-white color, but each one will receive a distinctive coat of paint in colors chosen by bison artists around the Hoosier State.

This summer a whole herd of these pretend bison will gather at the Indiana State Fair. It will be a memorable mammal moment for the state’s 200th birthday and a fitting tribute to a creature that played a big role in our history.