Photo composite by Jim Cooke; photos via Getty

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2908, the National Bison Legacy Act, a bill which would name the bison the national mammal of the United States.

The bison (Bison bison) is an ideal symbol for our country. It was, at one time, the epitome of abundance and majesty, ranging from the far northern tundra to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachians to the Rockies, with a population in the tens of millions. In the course of the conquest of the continental interior, its range was sliced in two by the railroad, and the herds were slaughtered by the thousands a day.

Hundreds of thousands of hides and millions of pounds of bones were shipped off to the leather and fertilizer industries, and most of the meat was simply wasted, left to rot on the carcass-strewn prairies. For Plains Indians, the loss of the bison as a reliable source of food and material helped end their ability to hold out against the incursions of the United States Army.

In the course of about half a century, the bison was all but exterminated. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that at 1884, there were approximately 325 surviving wild bison in the entire country.

The broken remnant of the continent-spanning bison herd has now recovered to a population in the mid-hundreds of thousands, most of it privately held. The gene pool of the species is widely diluted by interbreeding with domestic cattle.

At present, free-roaming American bison are outnumbered by the billionaire Ted Turner’s personal bison herd, which Turner Enterprises identifies as the world’s largest and which is slaughtered to make burgers served at a chain of restaurants in exurban shopping plazas.

The measure now goes to the Senate.