Move over bald eagle, you just got competition. On Monday President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, a bipartisan bill that recognizes the cultural, historic, and economical importance of the North American bison. The bill also declares the bison as the national mammal of the United States.

It is an entirely symbolic move, but it appears to be one that members of both sides of the aisle can agree on. That in itself is rare enough in Washington DC.

“The bison is now officially the U.S. National Mammal and rightfully so,” said Senator John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), who sponsored the bill with his Democrat counterpart, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico). ‘Bison are strong, proud and free, and a truly American icon with an incredible story.”

A story that almost had a dark ending. There was a time when American bison walked on a knife’s edge from extinction. Easy to hunt and bountiful, commercial hunting and slaughter decimated the bison population. By the late 1800s, there was less than a thousand bison left in North America. Then in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt and a number of other leading sportsmen and conservationists founded the American Bison Society. The organization’s singular goal was to keep the bison,which had once numbered 40 million strong, from dying out completely.

Towards that end, the society led efforts to capture and breed bison in captivity. By 1935, the American Bison Society had created three separate herds, safe in national parks and refuges. The group set in motion one of the earliest and most successful conservation movements in North America, resulting in more than 500,000 bison on the continent today, with about 15,000 living in the wild.

“Recognition of our new national mammal will bring a new source of pride for Americans-just like the bald eagle-and also bring greater attention to ongoing species recovery efforts,” said Senator Heinrich. “Bison are a uniquely American animal and are the embodiment of American strength and resilience. The bison has been an important part of our culture for many generations, especially in New Mexico, across the West, and in Indian Country. I hope that in my lifetime, thanks to a broad coalition of ranchers, wildlife advocates, and tribal nations, we will see bison return to the prominent place they once occupied in our nation’s shortgrass prairies.”

The position of a national mammal is a new one, but that does not mean it is the first time for the bison to be recognized. The large herbivore is already the state animal of three states, on at least two state flags, and it is depicted on the official seal of the US Department of Interior.

Image courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

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