It is one of the most iconic creatures in American history.
President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law on Monday (May 9), making the American bison the first official national mammal of the United States.
Though its image has graced the back of the US nickel for the past 25 years and it has been featured on the US Interior Department seal since 1912, the bison finally joins the ranks of the American bald eagle, which serves as the country’s national bird.
Bison are the largest land animal in North America, weighing up to 2,000 pounds. They have also been around for an incredibly long time, having managed to survive the Ice Age that drove other large mammals like wooly mammoths to extinction.
Following near-extinction, their numbers eventually swelled into the hundreds of thousands, with herds stampeding across the plains of the North American West. But by the late 1800s, only a few hundred American bison remained due to habitat loss and hunting pressure.
Their numbers have since rebounded once again, and Yellowstone National Park — the only place in the US that bison have continuously inhabited since prehistoric times — boasts a population of roughly 4,900 animals today.
However, there is some controversy surrounding the annual slaughter of hundreds of bison to keep Yellowstone’s population below a target of 3,000 animals. The cull was originally intended to reduce the spread of brucellosis from wild bison to cattle and to ensure that the bison population wouldn’t grow beyond what the food supply within the park can support.
The designation of the American bison as an official symbol of the United States comes after a five-year push by the Wildlife Conservation Society urging the federal government to recognize the historical and cultural significance of bison within the country.
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