The U.S.’s largest living land mammal, the bison, was named the country’s national mammal this week. President Barack Obama signed the bipartisan measure into law on Monday.
Senators Martin Heinrich (a Democrat from New Mexico) and John Hoeven (a Republican from North Dakota) introduced the bill, which was unanimously approved, last December. The House of Representatives passed its version in late April.
The bill calls the bison a “historical symbol” of the U.S. that was “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies.”
“Bison are a uniquely American animal and are the embodiment of American strength and resilience,” Senator Heinrich said in a statement. “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 Wildlife Conservation Society and the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, which led the Vote Bison Coalition, both supported the bill. In fact, the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council works with the National Park Service to transfer bison from park lands to Tribal lands.
Bison once roamed the entire Great Plains, but during the 19th century, settlers killed around 50 million of them, reducing the herds to just a few hundred animals. Thanks to conservation efforts, the Wildlife Conservation Society estimates there are around 15,000 free-ranging bison, as well as several hundred thousand bison that are raised for meat production.
The largest population of bison lives in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is the only place in the U.S. where bison have consistently lived since prehistoric times. As of July 2015, the population of local bison was estimated at 4,900 bison.