The Case Against the National Bison Legacy Act

We Mustn't Let America Be Buffaloed


While the American public has been otherwise distracted by trivial matters such as the presidential election and the possibility of nuclear war with Iran, a great peril has descended upon us that threatens our very fabric as a nation. And like all great existential perils, it can be summed up in a single breath: The National Bison Legacy Act.

The NBLA, which has been introduced in the Senate and which already enjoys the support of lawmakers from eight states, would designate the Plains bison the Official Mammal of the United States. There is so much wrong with this proposal that it is hard to know where to begin. So let's begin with the bison itself. First off, the bison—or "buffalo," as it is sometimes called—is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, metaphorically speaking. Bison were hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th Century because frontiersmen could shoot them by the dozens while the rest of the herd stood around, oblivious:

First bison: "Did you hear that? Sounded like a shot."

Second bison: "Probably just a car backfiring. Say, Phil sure looks tired, doesn't he?"

Second, there is the bison's Latin name. Most North American animals have sensible Latin names. For instance, the bobcat's is Lynx rufus (literally, "cat named Rufus"). The grizzly bear's Latin designation is Ursus arctos horribilis—from the Latin horribilis (horrible) ursus (snarling thing) arctos (outside your tent). But the Plains bison? Its Latin name is—ready for this? It's not a typo—bison bison bison (literally, "we can't think of any other words").

Some people like the bison, to be sure, especially with a little garlic butter. There is even a National Bison Association, along with a bunch of state bison associations, and you will not be surprised to learn they are all in favor of the free marketing that official-mammal designation would bring to their industry.

In fact, it would not be surprising to learn that someone in the bison industry put the senators up to this. After all, that is how these things usually work: Once a political entity has an official flag and song and perhaps an official seal or coat of arms, the folks in charge are usually content to let the matter rest. But then someone in, say, the dairy industry hits upon the bright idea that having the legislature designate milk the official state beverage would be a swell way to boost the third quarter's bottom line.

So the milk-industry lobbyist invites the relevant lawmaker out for a few drinks and whatnot, and after the lawmaker has been sufficiently lubricated the lobbyist slips him a bill that the industry has so thoughtfully drafted for him, and then the lobbyist asks: Oh by the way, how is your campaign treasury looking these days?  Of course the lawmaker cannot do what he would like to do, which is tell the dairy industry to kiss off, because he is facing a primary challenge and needs the cash. So pretty soon the state has a new official beverage.

The next thing you know everyone is getting in on the act. Retirees who spend every weekend going to square-dance conventions start a campaign to have the square dance designated the state's official dance—just as it has been in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and 19 other U.S. states. Then the fishermen demand to have the bluegill (Illinois) or the crappie (Louisiana) named the official state fish. Pretty soon you have an official state butterfly such as the two-tailed Swallowtail (Arizona) or the Karner Blue (New Hampshire)—along with an official state dinosaur (Hadrosaurus foulkii, New Jersey), shell (Crassostrea virginica, Virginia), soil (Harney silt loam, Kansas), sport (jousting, Maryland) and potato festival (the Albemarle Potato Festival in Elizabeth City, North Carolina).

Then the schoolkids join in. According to the official state website of Colorado, "In 2007, Jay Baichi's 4th grade class began the process to get the Western Painted Turtle designated as the Colorado State Reptile. His 4th grade class the next year completed the legal steps and Governor Ritter signed HB 08-1017 on March 18, 2008." Oh joy. Before you know it, the drunks and practical jokers have had their way and you end up like Nevada—which has, kid you not, an official state artifact: a 2,000-year-old Tule Duck Decoy made out of bulrushes that was found during a cave exploration in 1924. Second prize is two Tule Duck Decoys.

This is what America has in store for it, if it goes down the buffalo road. And it cannot end well. Gibbon wrote all about it in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we are repeating the mistake again 2,000 years later. It's all on the Internet, you can look it up yourself.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.