The Bison Is Now the Official Mammal of the United States

The big beasts are the first official mammals recognized by the federal government

Neil Emmerson/robertharding/Corbis

One of North America’s most steadfast species is getting its due. After years of campaigning by conservationists, President Obama just signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, making the North American Bison the official mammal of the United States, USA TODAY's Gregory Korte reports.

Bison herds have roamed the prairies of North America for tens of thousands of years. But while their fellow megafauna like the wooly mammoths and giant sloths went extinct millennia ago, bison have managed to survive everything from the Ice Age to overhunting. Advocates for the big beasts’ well-being say that it’s time the bison is honored for its role in the history of the United States, Amy Martin reports for Montana Public Radio.

“It's a long-standing survivor. And that's something we can all value is resilience,” Keith Aune, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bison Conservation Program, tells Martin.

For the last five years, the WCS and the Intertribal Buffalo Council have been pushing elected officials in the federal government to recognize the bison’s historical and cultural significance in the U.S. by designating it an official symbol. Now, thanks to legislation passed by the House and Senate last month, the bison has joined the bald eagle as one of the country’s national animals, Politico's Nick Glass reports

While millions of bison once wandered the midwest, they nearly went extinct from overhunting. However, thanks to conservation efforts, there are now about 500,000 bison across the U.S., with herds in all 50 states, Anthony Adragna reports for Bloomberg News.

According to the National Bison Legacy Act, the bison will be designated the official mammal of the U.S. to honor its history and its significance to the “economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes.” The bill also noted the success of work by conservationists and officials like Teddy Roosevelt and William Hornaday in raising awareness of the bison’s plight during the 19th century and spurring efforts to bring the animals back from the brink of extinction.

To be fair, like most “official things” the “national mammal” designation is symbolic. The bison will not receive any additional protections like the bald eagle, which means that ranchers can continue to raise and sell bison for meat. However, activists hope that making the bison a national symbol will both honor its role in U.S. history and provide symbolic support for future conservation efforts, G. Clay Whittaker reports for Popular Science.

“I do believe that they do have a future here,” Ervin Carlson, the president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, tells Martin. “They do belong here."

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