JACKSON, Wyo. — Giant, shaggy and dangerous, bison are the bad boys of the grasslands.
Bulls can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. They injure more visitors to Yellowstone National Park than any other animal.
These hulking creatures represent a time, hundreds of years ago, when American Indians hunted bison for food across the Great Plains. Their hides offered warmth, clothing and shelter, and their bones became tools.
Thanks to the Wildlife Conservation Society, a day for the bison has been set aside.
And if the folks at the conservation society have their way, the mighty bison will soon sit alongside the bald eagle — our national emblem — as the United States' national mammal.
A celebration for the inaugural National Bison Day, Nov. 1, was held earlier this month at the National Museum of Wildlife Art at Jackson. Attendance was low, but it was the first crack at the event, celebrated in South Dakota, New Mexico, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. A celebration was also scheduled in New York City but was called off because of Hurricane Sandy.
National Bison Day is in line with the National Bison Legacy Act, a bill sponsored by Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, said Keith Aune, the Wildlife Conservation Society's senior conservation scientist.
"That designation doesn't come with any authorities, it doesn't cost any money, it doesn't invoke any jurisdictional battles over management of the species," Aune tells the Jackson Hole News & Guide (http://bit.ly/TweXCV ). "It's really about a symbolic designation and then providing a special day each year for us to celebrate the species and why it's important to America."
Scott Smith, the group's communications manager, introduced Aune, who he described as "the bison guy" to a crowd of about 25.
Aune makes a compelling argument for the bison having some sort of special symbolic status.
The American bison once roamed across the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska.
At peak numbers, estimated at 30 to 60 million, they were found in close to every corner of the Lower 48, Aune said.
Driven by government policy, demand for hides and mass slaughters, the "force of nature" was rapidly removed from the land, eventually winnowing the population to about 1,200 animals, Aune said.
By 1905, a group of ranchers, conservationists and sportsmen formed the American Bison Society to breathe some life into small herds that remained scattered in pockets around the country.
The species, now numbering 500,000, has been effectively saved and is no longer threatened by extinction. But today roughly 95 percent of all bison are raised commercially, primarily for their meat, Aune said.
Growth of wild herds on public lands petered out in the 1930s, he said.
That's led to the "second recovery of the bison," what Aune described as an effort to increase the population from a conservation standpoint. That means increasing genetic diversity and bridging gaps in bison-habitable range, he said.
"They're all over the place — that does tend to cause some confusion in terms of the public," Aune said. "We have a real problem in the sense that most of our herds are small and on very small landscapes. Our job is not done."
The Jackson Hole bison herd, numbering about 900, is a good example of the problem with wild bison today, said Darrell Geist, the habitat coordinator for West Yellowstone, Mont.-based Buffalo Field Campaign.
"You have an unfortunate situation where the most important habitat components have been converted to livestock operations — i.e., the feedground operations," Geist said.
"There is a lot of local support for the Teton-Jackson bison herd, but unfortunately cattle genes have been found in that herd."
National Bison Day and the National Bison Legacy Act don't contain any specific goals for the North American bison population.