The bison will join the bald eagle, the national emblem since 1782, as America’s symbolic animal, in an effort to prevent it from going extinct
Bison once performed a key role in ecosystems by tearing up vegetation to allow new plants to grow.
The bison, an animal once hunted to the brink of extinction in America, is set to become the first national mammal of the US, putting it on a par with the bald eagle as a symbol of the nation.
Congress has passed legislation, the National Bison Legacy Act, which names the hoofed beast as a “historical symbol of the United States” and establishes it as the nation’s landmark mammal.
The designation is a “milestone” in the effort to “prevent the bison from going extinct and to recognize the bison’s ecological, cultural, historical and economic importance to the United States”, said Cristian Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“The bison will serve as a great national symbol for the United States as it is as strong as the oak, fearless as the bald eagle and inspiring as a rose,” Samper added.
The honor doesn’t confer any new protections for the bison but represents a startling turnaround in the fortunes of the animal, also known more informally as the buffalo. The species was virtually wiped out in the 19th century as settlers moved west across America, slaughtering bison as they went.
The US army had a policy to kill off bison to harm the Native American tribes that relied upon them, as well as to make way for farmland and for food. Althoug
h the animals can run at speeds of 35mph and are surprisingly agile, they were easy targets for hunters.
Tourists paid to slaughter the animals and bison killing contests were popular – one person from Kansas managed to shoot 120 bison in just 40 minutes. As many as 30 million bison once roamed as far east as New York, but by the dawn of the 20th century, little more than 1,000 remained in remote pockets of habitat.
A conservation effort pulled the bison back from the brink, led by the newly established Yellowstone national park, which protected an initial herd of just two dozen animals, growing it to around 5,000 today. There are around 30,000 wild bison left in areas of America’s west, with a further 400,000 raised as commercial livestock across all 50 states.
“The buffalo has had a special place in the lives of tribal people since time immemorial and played important roles in our culture, religion and lifestyle,” said Jim Stone, executive director of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council.
“Now buffalo have become a part of the fabric of tribal life once again, created the foundation for an economic movement based on healthy food choices and provided conservation groups opportunities to expand the habitat for the species.”
Bison have distinctive thick brown fur, long beards and horns. They also have a distinctive hump, which comprises powerful muscles that allow bison to move snow out of its way by using its head as a sort of snowplow. The animals, which can weigh up to 2,000lbs, are migratory and once performed a key role in ecosystems by tearing up vegetation to allow new plants to grow.
The imposing animals prefer eating grasses to humans but can prove risky to careless observers. Last summer, five people were injured by bison in Yellowstone. Three of the injuries occurred when people got close to bison in order to take selfies with the animal, only to be tossed in the air or jabbed by its horns.
Four of the people were hospitalized but none died. The National Parks Service, which prohibits visitors from getting within 75ft of bison, has warned that bison have little patience for unscheduled photoshoots with people who attempt to pose with the beasts.