The Bison Joins the Bald Eagle as a Fellow Symbol of America

The eagle stays put as our national animal, but now we have a national mammal as well.

A word to all the bison naysayers out there: The shaggy ungulate isn’t trying to steal any bird’s thunder. It just wants in on Team America.

On Monday, President Obama signed legislation that would make the bison the national mammal, allowing it to join the Bald Eagle as our national animal and national bird. “This is a new designation which has never existed before,” says John Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of several organizations that have spent the past few years pushing for the bison to become the national mammal. The group has also been largely responsible for saving the bison from extinction. Today, about 30,000 bison live in tightly managed herds, while another half-million live on private ranches. That’s not bad for a species that was down to 1,000 animals at the beginning of the 20th century.

Being a symbol doesn’t come with any added protections, but it does help illustrate how much effort the country has committed to saving both these species.

Some groups have objected to the bison’s designation, grousing that it takes away from the Bald Eagle’s revered status. But Calvelli points out that many states have multiple categories for symbols, covering everything from birds to reptiles to mammals. The United States, meanwhile, has a national tree (the oak) and a national floral emblem (the rose) in addition to the Bald Eagle. “This would be in that same vein,” Calvelli  says.

Calvelli adds that he credits supporters on both sides of the political aisle for the passage of the National Bison Legacy Act. “Despite our political differences, we still agree on what our national symbols should be,” he says. “This is helping people to connect with their natural heritage.”

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