BEFORE 1800, THERE WERE BELIEVED TO be 60 million bison roaming the plains of the United States. During Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific, they reported one herd of around 20,000 bison stretching across the plains. That was in 1806. By 1900, there were an estimated 300 bison left in the United States. Westward expansion had meant the introduction of diseases from domesticated cattle, and settlers would shoot buffalo by the thousands for pure sport, simply leaving the meat to rot. The US Government also used the targeting of bison as a method of basically starving Native Americans off of their land, as many of the plains tribes relied heavily on bison as a source of their food. The great symbol of the American Plains had been nearly wiped out in less than a century by a mixture of human spite and stupidity.

Thanks to conservation efforts in the past century, though, the American Bison has started to come back. The federal government passed the first law protecting bison in 1894. Zoos and private reserves kept bison alive in captivity. Over a century, the efforts worked. There are now believed to be over 500,000 bison in the country today. If you visit places like Yellowstone, you’re likely to see one, but there are bison living in every state (including those in captivity).

Because of their iconic status as a symbol of the American frontier, conservation groups, ranchers, and Native American tribes have lobbied Congress to designate bison as the National Mammal of the United States. At a time where Congress agrees on virtually nothing, the act was passed by both houses, and will now be signed by President Obama, enshrining the bison as one of the official symbols of the US, along with the famous bald eagle (the country’s official national animal and national bird).

For its 125th anniversary, the National Zoo has brought bison back on display as a way of showing how effective conservation efforts can be when the country commits to them. And indeed, the story behind the bison is impressive: the species would absolutely be extinct if a few dedicated groups hadn’t worked hard to bring them back to the country’s wilderness.

America, we present to you your newest national symbol: the bison.

h/t: Washington Post