The Bison Is Now America's First "National Mammal"

President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law Monday, giving bison a status comparable to that of the bald eagle.

Bison have now roamed onto a very short list of America's official animals.

On Monday, President Obama signed the the National Bison Legacy Act, making the animal — commonly referred to incorrectly as a "buffalo" — the "national mammal" of the U.S. Congress approved the bill last month.

The legislation elevates the bison to a similar level as the bald eagle, which has been the national bird since 1782. There are no other officially recognized national animals in the U.S., though many states have designated official local fauna.

In addition to its status as an official symbol of the U.S., the bald eagle is protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The bison does not get similar protections with its new status, but is now an officially recognized symbol.

The text of the National Bison Legacy Act touts the long, illustrious, and at times tragic history of the burly ungulate. It notes that the bison is connected to numerous Native American tribes, has economic value for rural communities, and "can play an important role in improving the types of grasses found" in its habitat.

In the late 1800s, however, hunting pushed the bison to the brink of extinction. A small group of people, including Teddy Roosevelt, then came together to save the bison via reintroductions and habitat protections, the bill adds.

Over the years, the bison became a significant cultural symbol as well, appearing on flags and coins and winning "official" status in several states.

The Senate and the House approved the bipartisan bill in April. It includes a provision stating that the new law would not change any federal policies. That provision is likely to assuage some fears, particularly in the West, where wildlife protections have been a point of contention for ranchers who graze cattle on public land.

Still, the bill is a victory for a coalition of groups that were pushing Americans to "elect our national mammal." The coalition includes conservationists, ranching organizations, Native American groups, and companies such as Patagonia and American Express.

“No other indigenous species tells America’s story better than this noble creature," U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, said in a statement last month. "The American bison is an enduring symbol of strength, Native American culture and the boundless western wildness. It is an integral part of the still largely untold story of Native Americans and their historic contributions to our national identity."

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