On Monday, President Barack Obama signed off on the National Bison Legacy Act, a new law making the American bison the first national mammal of the United States. The bill is the result of a lobbying effort from conservationists, ranchers and Native American tribes, and follows a long and controversial history that saw the bison nearly go extinct during the 19th century.

The bison—often called the buffalo—has appeared on everything from a famous U.S. nickel to two state flags, the seal of the Department of the Interior and even the logos of many sports teams. Now, thanks to a new law naming them the country’s national mammal, the iconic prairie dwellers join the bald eagle as one of only two animals officially recognized by the United States government.

The National Bison Legacy Act, signed by President Obama on May 9, describes the bison as “a historical symbol of the United States” and an animal “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes.” The bill was previously passed by Congress in April after winning bipartisan support. “Bison are a uniquely American animal and are the embodiment of American strength and resilience,” New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich said at the time. “Recognition of our new national mammal will bring a new source of pride for Americans—just like the bald eagle—and also bring greater attention to ongoing conservation and species recovery efforts.”

The seal of the US Department of the Interior.  (Credit: Greg Mathieson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
The seal of the US Department of the Interior. (Credit: Greg Mathieson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

The law comes on the heels of a four-year campaign by the Vote Bison Coalition, a collection of ranchers, zoos, conservation groups and Native American tribes. Led by a steering committee consisting of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, the National Bison Association and the Wildlife Conservation Society, the coalition designated the first Saturday in November as “National Bison Day” and lobbied politicians to elevate the bison “from lost species to honored icon of American society.”

“Finally we are placing this symbolic creature in proper perspective by recognizing its many values to the American people both past and present,” the WCS’s Keith Aune said in a press release. “The passage of this bill not only recognizes the historic significance of bison but signals the beginning of a grand American adventure to carry out ecological, economic and cultural restoration of American bison into the future.”

Aune has previously described the bison as a “long-standing survivor” in an interview with Montana Public Radio—and for good reason. The six-foot-tall, 2,000-pound vegetarians have been around for tens of thousands of years, enduring even after other North American “megafauna” like the wooly mammoth went extinct. They once wandered the continent from as far north as Alaska to as far south as Mexico, and served as a vital source of hides, food and fuel for indigenous tribes. An estimated 30 to 50 million bison lived in North America at the time Europeans arrived. In 1806, while returning from their famed trek to the Pacific Ocean, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark described seeing a “moving multitude” of buffalo so dense that they “darkened the whole plain.”

While the 19th century saw the bison become an enduring part of the myth and romance of the American frontier, it was also an era when they were pushed to the brink of extinction. Drought, disease and freezing winters combined to kill scores of bison, and the introduction of horses and high-powered rifles allowed whites and natives alike to hunt the behemoths with deadly efficiency. The slaughter only ramped up with the dawn of “Manifest Destiny,” when westward settlers came in droves and began killing bison for food, hides and sport. The famed “Buffalo Bill” Cody is said to have singlehandedly bagged more than 4,200 bison to feed railroad builders in the late-1860s.

Bison also entered the crosshairs of the U.S. military. During the Indian wars of the 1860s and 70s, the army encouraged the killing of bison as a way to destroy a key Native American resource and curb resistance to European expansion. “It will not be long before all the buffalo are extinct near and between the railroads,” General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1868, “after which the Indians will have no reason to approach them.” The prediction proved prophetic. Over 3 million bison were annihilated between 1872 and 1874. By 1890, overhunting and environmental factors had seen the United States’ bison population dwindle to just 1,000.

Yellowstone Bison. (Credit: Universal Education/Getty Images)
Yellowstone Bison. (Credit: Universal Education/Getty Images)

The survival of the bison was achieved through what the Vote Bison Coalition calls “the first American conservation success story.” Taxidermist William Hornaday led the charge by penning 1889’s “The Extermination of the Bison,” which drew attention to the crisis. Federal laws were soon passed making it a crime to kill the animals, and in 1905, Hornaday teamed with President Theodore Roosevelt and others to form the American Bison Society. The group proved instrumental in increasing the numbers of wild bison. Between 1907 and 1913, it oversaw the transfer of several dozen animals from New York zoos to preserves in Oklahoma, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Combined with the efforts of ranchers, who began raising bison in captivity for their meat and leather, free-range herds have helped the population bounce back from the rock bottom lows of the late-19th century. There are now some 500,000 bison in North America. Most are held as commercial livestock, but an estimated 30,000 exist in conservation herds across the American West, including around 5,000 in Yellowstone National Park, the only place in the United States where bison have always roamed free.

The bison’s “national mammal” designation is entirely symbolic—the animals won’t receive any new protections under the law—but supporters believe it will boost efforts to reintroduce them into the wild. The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, for example, is working to move surplus bison from state parks onto more than one million acres of Indian land. “The recognition of the buffalo as the National Mammal shows the cross cultural stature of this iconic animal and for tribes will allow us to expand our work on reintroducing buffalo into our day to day lives,” said Jim Stone, the group’s executive director. “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.”

John Calvelli, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s executive vice president of public affairs, described the new law as a validation of the bison’s influence on America. “As an ecological keystone, cultural bedrock and economic driver, the bison conveys values such as unity, resilience and commitment to healthy landscapes and communities,” he said. “Bison takes a place alongside the bald eagle as a national symbol to be revered.”

“Ranchlands” is a 6-part digital series following Duke Phillips and his family as they manage one of the last and largest herds of wild bison in North America, from branding cattle in the spring to herding bison in the fall.Watch now.