You probably think of the bald eagle when you think of an animal that represents the United States. But as of this week, the eagle has a rather large competitor.
President Obama officially named the American bison the national mammal on Monday by signing the National Bison Legacy Act. (The bald eagle will keep its status as a national symbol.)
The new law may give celebrity status to the huge and shaggy animal, also known as the buffalo, that once roamed North America in the tens of millions. By the late 1800s, they were almost extinct because of hunting.
President Theodore Roosevelt helped found the American Bison Society in 1905 to save the species. The group bred the animals at the New York City Zoo and in 1905 sent 15 bison to live at the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve in Oklahoma. About 10,000 wild bison now live in Yellowstone National Park and on other U.S. government-owned land.
“Many consider this our nation’s first successful conservation story,” said John Calvelli, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the organizations supporting the bill.
Members of Congress who wrote the bill said the bison deserved the official status because it was part of U.S. history and culture, especially that of Native Americans.
“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,” said Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
Bison are the largest land mammal in North America, according to the National Park Service. Males can weigh up to 2,000 and stand six feet tall. Despite their size, bison can move. They can run 35 miles per hour and jump over five-foot obstacles.