The bald eagle has company as a national symbol of America. The bison is now the nation’s national mammal (a warm-blooded animal that has hair or fur). On Monday, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that gives bison that official title. Obama signed the bill after it passed the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The new law recognizes the important role that bison have played in American history.
“No other [native] species tells America’s story better than this noble creature,” said Representative William Lacy Clay of Missouri, one of the bill’s writers.
BISON MAKE A COMEBACK
Imagine a herd of huge animals thundering across a prairie. Many are 6 feet tall. They can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. A couple of centuries ago, this was a common sight on the Great Plains. More than 40 million bison, also known as buffalo, lived across North America.
Native Americans long depended on bison, hunting them for food and clothing. But in the mid-1800s, large-scale hunting of bison began. Settlers moving westward killed thousands of bison for food and their valuable hides. They also built farms and towns where bison lived, leaving the animals with less room to roam. The settlers’ cattle spread diseases that killed many bison. The loss of huge numbers of bison hurt both the animals and the Native Americans who depended on them.
By the late 1800s, fewer than 1,000 bison remained. The species was almost extinct when conservationists—including President Theodore Roosevelt—stepped in. The American Bison Society created the first bison preserves, where bison couldn’t be hunted. Slowly, the bison began to bounce back.
The effort became the first animal conservation success story in the U.S. Today, about 500,000 bison live in herds on public, private, and tribal lands.
AN IMPORTANT SYMBOL
The new law, the National Bison Legacy Act, was the result of a campaign by conservation groups, businesses, and Native American tribes.
“Finally we are placing this symbolic creature in proper perspective by recognizing its many values to the American people both past and present,” says Keith Aune of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which worked to support the law. “The American bison truly stands out among all North American mammals and deserves to be our national mammal.”