The Bald Eagle has company.
The official animal symbol of the United States gained a partner recently, as President Obama named the American Bison the national mammal.
The announcement came alongside Obama’s signing of the National Bison Legacy Act, a set of measures recognizing the species’ economic, historical, and cultural importance to the country.
“The bison will serve as a great national symbol for the United States,” said Wildlife Conservation Society president Cristián Samper. “[I]t is as strong as the oak, fearless as the bald eagle and inspiring as a rose.”
The elevation of bison (not to be confused with buffalo, a different species) to national symbol places great reverence on an animal who, only 200 years ago, humans almost drove to extinction.
At their peak, bison populations stretched from Alaska to Mexico and numbered in the tens of millions. Native American tribes along the Great Plains depended on the animal for food and famously used “every part” of the animal in some way. This hunting was, for a long time, sustainable.
What was less sustainable was the frenzy accompanying the settling of the American West in the 19th century. Frontiersman hunted the animal to near extinction, going so far as to
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