The National Bison Legacy Act, which must get Senate approval before heading to the President’s desk for his signature, aims to honor the historical and contemporary significance of the majestic animal.
“No other indigenous species tells America’s story better than this noble creature,” Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, said in a statement.
Clay and several other members of the House and the Senate across both parties wrote and co-sponsored the bill.
“The American bison is an enduring symbol of strength, native American culture and the boundless Western wildness,” Clay said.
“It is an integral part of the still largely untold story of Native Americans and their historic contributions to our national identity.”
An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate in December, but it was slightly modified in the House and therefore must be reapproved, according to Steven Engelhardt, a Clay spokesman.
Senate co-sponsors expect this to happen this week.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, compared the bison to the bird that already is an official U.S. symbol.
“The bison, like the bald eagle, has for many years been a symbol of America for its strength, endurance and dignity, reflecting the pioneer spirit of our country,” Hoeven said in a statement.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization that played a large part in the animal’s fight against extinction, welcomed Tuesday’s news.
“The National Bison Legacy Act is a milestone in a long journey by WCS, its flagship Bronx Zoo, and many other partners 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, WCS president and CEO.
The North American bison has a complicated history.
Though the animal once grazed the plains of most of the United States in the millions, its population dwindled to a little over a thousand at the turn of the 20th century, according to a highly cited study published by the late William Hornaday, a taxidermist, hunter, zoologist and first director of the New York Zoological Park, known today as the Bronx Zoo.
Hornaday’s study noted that this decline coincided in large part with the mass slaughter of the animal during the years of the United States’ westward expansion.
Through preservation efforts led by former U.S. President and environmentalist Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the American Bison Society, legislators, what is now known as the Bronx Zoo, and hundreds of people across the country, the bison was slowly but consistently reintroduced into the wild, according to a Wildlife Conservation Society historical analysis.
An estimated 500,000 bison now exist across all 50 states and contribute to a “multimillion dollar sector of American agriculture,” according to a statement from the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a member of the “Vote Bison Coalition” that pushed for the bill.
“The recognition of the buffalo as the national mammal shows the crosscultural 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, executive director for the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council.
The Vote Bison Coalition is led by the InterTribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association and Wildlife Conservation Society.
The coalition counts more than 50 businesses, tribal groups and organizations that have banded together to support efforts to celebrate bison, according to a release from the group.