North America's bison, a living emblem of the Western frontier that roamed the continent by the millions before being hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s, was officially designated on Monday as the national mammal of the United States.
The bison, whose image adorned the back of the U.S. nickel for 25 years and has graced the U.S. Interior Department seal since 1912, was bestowed symbolic status equal to that of the American bald eagle through an act of Congress.
The measure, signed into law by President Barack Obama, proclaims the bison's role as a symbol for America's heritage as a whole. It cites the animal's history as “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies.”
Bison, also widely known as buffalo, rank as North America's largest living land mammals, with males of the shaggy, hump-shouldered species weighing up to 2,000 pounds (900 kg) and standing 6 feet (1.8 metres) tall.
They once ranged by the tens of millions across the continent, most notably the Great Plains. But unregulated hunting and government extermination programs reduced their numbers to just a few hundred by the late 19th century.