The American bison has been officially designated the national mammal of the United States, following a ceremony at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
The Wildlife Conservation Society worked with congress on the designation for six years before its approval in spring 2015, and the ceremony on November 1 officiated national recognition for the continent’s largest land mammal — symbolic of American strength, resilience and the nation's pioneer spirit, the Rapid City Journal reports.
"It was a long journey, working through the system. But we had great champs in both the House and the Senate," Kelly Aylward, director of the Conservation Society’s office in Washington said, adding she hopes designation will bring more awareness to the cause of bison conservation in America.
Tens of millions of bison, also known as buffalo, once migrated across North America before commercial hunting dwindled the population to a thousand or fewer by the 19th century, according to the Associated Press. After conservation efforts by public, tribal, and private lands in the US and Canada, about 30 thousand wild bison now roam the country.
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In addition to conservation efforts, InterTribal Buffalo Council executive director Jim Stone said he hopes increased awareness will 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)."
Awareness for the concerns of Native Americans in the United States have been additionally heightened by protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, which members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe see as an environmental and cultural threat to the area, according to the Washington Post.
President Obama came forward on Nov. 1 saying his administration would consider rerouting the pipeline away from tribal lands, and press secretary Josh Earnest reported the Department of the Interior would be taking a ‘fresh look’ at their procedures to incorporate input from Native American communities.
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During the fall 2016 conference of the White House’s tribal liaison, which Obama established, the president recalled how he had pledged upon entering the White House to do more for tribal communities.
“I want everybody in this auditorium and all the folks back home in you respective communities to know that whole time I’ve heard you, I have seen you. And I hope I’ve done right by you,” he said.
The bison designation ceremony was scheduled to coincide with Native American Month in November as well as National Buffalo Day, which takes place the first Saturday of November. Prior to the bison, there had not been an official mammal of the United States.