Ben Edwards/USFWS file photo

American Eagle, Meet the American Bison

President Obama has signed legislation making the bison the national mammal of the United States.

President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act on Monday, making the country’s official national mammal the American bison, also known colloquially as the buffalo.

The bison joins the ranks of the bald eagle, which serves as the country’s national bird. Congress approved the bipartisan bison legislation last month. The U.S. Department of the Interior recalled Monday the bison’s tumultuous experience once the Europeans arrived on the continent:

In prehistoric times, millions of bison roamed North America—from the forests of Alaska and the grasslands of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains. But by the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today.

Native Americans had long traveled beside the herds, using their meat, hide, and horns to survive. When European and American trappers started to travel west, they killed the animal for its fur. Bison hunting intensified in the 1860s, as railroads tied east to west and allowed people to reach once-desolate lands more easily. It brought people like William Cody, a U.S. Cavalry scout who earned the nickname “Buffalo Bill” for killing 5,000 bison in just 18 months. At one point, the U.S. military killed any bison it encountered, assuming that if the animals were eradicated, so too would be the Native Americans.

Today, there are 500,000 bison in the U.S., and about 10,000 of those live on public land and are overseen by the Department of the Interior. They roam in 17 herds in 12 states. Yellowstone National Park, the only place in the country where bison have lived continually, is home to the largest herd.

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