CUSTER, S.D. — For the spectators at the 50th annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup Friday, the thundering hooves and front-heavy gait of the shaggy, horned beasts maybe were symbolic.
The sight may inspire visions of the late 1800s, when hide hunters and homesteaders pushed bison to near extinction, and played a part in relegating American Indians onto reservations.
Despite the bison's evocative hold on the American psyche and its central role in the history of South Dakota and the United States, neither government has made the animal an official symbol.
David Dary, the Oklahoma-based author of "The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal," said it's time to change that.
"It deserves that recognition because of its importance in the history of the West," Dary told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/1gUdrh1 ).
To that end, a number of federal lawmakers are supporting a National Bison Legacy Act that would adopt bison as the national mammal of America. Senate legislation was announced last week and a House bill was introduced in June.
The Senate bill's co-sponsors so far include Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and the House bill's co-sponsors include Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.
"Bison are an ever-present figure within American history," Noem said in a statement issued upon the bill's introduction. "Naming this iconic animal as our national mammal is an appropriate way to solidify their place as an enduring American symbol."
Earlier versions of the legislation failed to gain traction in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The legislative efforts stemmed from the work of the Vote Bison Coalition, which formed in 2012 and is led by the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association and Wildlife Conservation Society.
The coalition exists to advocate for bison as the national mammal and to seek a designation of the first Saturday of November as National Bison Day. Though the national mammal effort has not succeeded, the observance of National Bison Day has been urged each of the past two years by non-binding Senate resolutions.
Meanwhile, an effort to make bison an official South Dakota symbol failed in 2012.
Then-state Sen. Tom Nelson, R-Lead, had attended the annual governor's pheasant hunt the previous fall, where he and some other attendees lightheartedly discussed their disappointment in the choice of the coyote as state animal.
"The buffalo, or American bison, is more stately and looks a little better on a coin," Nelson said last week in a phone interview. "At the time, I thought maybe I should try to make it the state animal, so I dropped in a bill to change the state animal from the coyote to the bison."
He recalled some critics charging that the switch would be an affront to the University of South Dakota, which has the coyote as its mascot. So the bill was amended in a Senate committee to make the bison the state mascot, thereby retaining the coyote as state animal.
With that amendment, the bill cruised through the committee on a 9-0 vote and through the full Senate on a 25-10 vote.
Then it moved to a House committee where, as Nelson recalled, harried lawmakers nearing the end of the legislative session derided it as trivial and killed it with a 7-5 vote.
The triviality argument was perhaps hypocritical in a state where the list of 17 lawfully adopted symbols includes a dessert (kuchen), soil (Houdek), fossil (triceratops), drink (milk), musical instrument (fiddle) and bread (fry bread).
Few of those can match the bison's prominence and impact in state history, or even modernity. South Dakota is regularly ranked as the No. 1 bison state in the nation with more than 30,000 head inside the state's borders.
Additionally, the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival draws as many as 15,000 visitors to the state each year. The bison that are culled from the park's herd during the roundup are auctioned, and the proceeds — $378,425 last year from 223 excess bison — stay with the state park system.
Nelson, who's no longer in the Legislature, thinks the case for bison as a state and national symbol is strong.
"I think the state ought to get on board and get it done first," Nelson said, "if even just for bragging rights."