Bison roam among elk at the National Elk Refuge, near Jackson, Wyoming. Although bison were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century, their population has bounced back.
Of all of the animals native to the United States, none represents the country’s history more significantly (and uncomfortably) than the American bison.
In the mid-19th century, white Americans began to kill bison as a way to control Native American tribes that depended on them for food. Before that, bison numbered in the tens of millions. By 1902, there were only about two dozen left. Thanks to conservation efforts, populations have resurged, and bison are no longer endangered.
On Monday, President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, making bison the national mammal of the United States. The act explains that bison are awarded this status because they “are considered a historical symbol of the United States” and “were integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies.”
Awarding this status to the bison—and putting it on par with the U.S. national bird, the bald eagle—is a way of acknowledging a part of U.S. history that is not always discussed. To honor this moment, we’ve collected these incredible photos of bison, most of which appear in our May 2016 Yellowstone issue of National Geographic.
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