Sound the trumpets! Congress passed a bill!
President Barack Obama on Monday signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, elevating the American bison — our new national mammal — to bald eagle status.
The law is “a validation of the many meaningful ways this animal represents America,” according to a Wildlife Conservation Society press release. “As an ecological keystone, cultural bedrock and economic driver, the bison conveys values such as unity, resilience and commitment to healthy landscapes and communities.”
But the bison’s path to official American icon hasn’t been easy. The powerful animal has been roaming Northern America since prehistoric times, but settlers drove the population dangerously close to extinction during westward expansion.
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While many Native American tribes used every part of the bison, settlers often killed them just to harvest their valuable hides and tongues, which were considered a delicacy. The Smithsonian Institute says that from 1872 to 1874, a single railway company’s records show it shipped 500,000 bison hides back to the East Coast.
Today, after years of legal protection, there is once again a healthy bison population in the U.S. — about 500,000 individuals living in both commercial and conservation herds. The species is considered America’s first conservation success story.
With the new law, culminating years of work by the Vote Bison Coalition, bison are finally being recognized as the quintessentially American animals they are.
Really, it’s a win-win situation for everyone: Americans have a new national mammal, members of Congress get to feel like they’ve actually done something, and bison get a consolation prize for overcoming near-extinction.