The National Bison Legacy Act, which would designate the bison as the national mammal of the U.S., has passed through both houses of Congress. All that is required now is a signature from President Barack Obama, at which point the bill will become law.
The legislation's backers said it was high time to officially recognize the bison, an animal of both cultural and ecological importance, the Associated Press reports.
"The bison has been an important part of our culture for many generations, especially in New Mexico, across the West and in Indian Country," Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said, adding that its recognition as the national mammal "will bring a new source of pride for Americans, just like the bald eagle."
The bison not only serves as an integral part of the commercial meat industry; it also holds cultural significance to many Native American tribes, NPR notes. Furthermore, the bison's image is already included on two state flags, and it serves as the official mammal or animal of three states.
Bison used to number in the tens of millions, spanning from central Canada to northern Mexico, the AP reports. The population was devastated, however, by widespread commercial hunting of buffalo for their pelts. As a result, less than 1,000 bison existed by the end of the 19th century.
There are currently about 30,000 wild bison living in the U.S. today, a large portion of them living in Yellowstone National Park. Another 300,000 bison are raised in commercial herds to later be sold as meat.
Keith Aune, bison program director with the Wildlife Conservation Society, called the bison's recovery from the brink of extinction "a remarkable story," according to NPR.
The bill will not allow the introduction of wild bison into new areas, as Western ranchers have expressed concerns about the possible spread of disease, as well as insufficient grazing space, the AP reports. Nevertheless, conservationists remain hopeful that the animal's new status will bring bison back to areas in which they used to roam.
"No other indigenous species tells America's story better than this noble creature," Republican State Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri told the AP. "The American bison is an enduring symbol of strength, Native American culture and the boundless western wilderness."