RAPID CITY, S.D. – The American bison has been designated the national mammal of the U.S. during a ceremony at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
Congress approved the designation last spring, and it became official Tuesday, the Rapid City Journal reported. Federal lawmakers have called the bison — North America's largest land animal — the embodiment of American strength, resilience and the nation's pioneer spirit.
The Wildlife Conservation Society worked with worked with Congress for about six years to make the designation happen, said Kelly Aylward, director of the agency's office in Washington.
"It was a long journey, working through the system. But we had great champs in both the House and the Senate," Aylward said, adding that she hopes the designation will help bring more awareness and support to conserving and reviving bison herds across the country.
Tens of millions of bison, also known as buffalo, once thundered across a range stretching from central Canada through the Great Plains and northern Mexico. After a century-long slaughter driven by commercial hunting for buffalo pelts, the population dwindled to a thousand or fewer by the late 1800s.
About 30,000 wild bison now roam the country, with the largest population in Yellowstone National Park. Bison also are scattered in public, tribal and private lands in the U.S. and Canada.
InterTribal Buffalo Council executive director Jim Stone said he hopes greater awareness will also lead to education about the importance of bison to Native Americans.
"It allows for a greater platform for having the conversations and allows for education and outreach and getting people to understand," he said. "There's something that exists in our view of the animal that doesn't exist in (federal systems)."
There had not previously been an official mammal of the United States.
Tuesday's ceremony was scheduled to coincide with Native American Month in November, as well as National Buffalo Day, which is the first Saturday in November.