SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – President Obama signed a bill making the North American bison the national mammal of the United States.

The sun sets behind a herd of bison in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The sun sets behind a herd of bison in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Thanks to the National Bison Legacy Act, the once-nearly extinct species joins the American bald eagle as the image of strength and courage for the country.

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Early settlers called these large, imposing animals ‘buffalo,’ but the correct name is, in fact, bison. Unlike buffalo, the bison bears a large shoulder hump and a massive head. Males weigh as much as 2000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall. Despite their bulk, bison can run at speeds up to 45 miles per hour.

1871:  Railroad travellers shooting buffalo from a train on the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, between Ellis and Kit Carson. It became a custom, in the not to uncommon event of finding a herd of buffalo on the track, to stop the engine and allow the  passengers out to shoot them.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1871: Railroad travellers shooting buffalo from a train on the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, between Ellis and Kit Carson. It became a custom, in the not to uncommon event of finding a herd of buffalo on the track, to stop the engine and allow the passengers out to shoot them. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Some thirty million bison once roamed the Great Plains but were cruelly hunted almost to extinction by the 19th century.

Thanks to conservation efforts there are now an estimated 20,000 bison roaming free in the U.S. and Canada and even more being raised on private lands.

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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A coalition of conservationists, ranchers and tribal groups lobbied to craft and pass the legislation making bison the official national symbol.

The Wildlife Conservation Society was among those groups. In an interview with the Washington Post, President Cristián Samper said the bison is an “icon that represents the highest ideals of America: unity, resilience and healthy landscapes and communities.”


CBSSF.com writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer and host of The Bronze Report. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.

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