BILLINGS, Mont. — Western lawmakers want to elevate the Plains bison to a status similar to that of the iconic bald eagle with legislation to declare the burly beasts America's "national mammal."
Bison advocates launched a "vote bison" public relations campaign Friday to coincide with the bill.
The National Bison Legacy Act introduced in the Senate is backed by lawmakers from Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Rhode Island.
The largely symbolic measure would provide no added protections for the estimated 20,000 wild bison in North America. And the bald eagle would still hold a somewhat loftier role as the national emblem, as declared by the Second Continental Congress in 1782.
But supporters said the bison legacy bill would afford overdue recognition to a species that has sweeping cultural and ecological significance. Bison – North America's largest land animal – already appear on two state flags and the official seal of the U.S. Department of Interior.
"The North American bison is an enduring symbol of America, its people and a way of life," said Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, chief sponsor of the bill along with South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.
Tens of millions of bison, also known as buffalo, once roamed most of North America. They were heavily relied on by many American Indian tribes who harvested the animals for food and materials to make clothing and shelter.
Overhunting reduced the population to about 1,000 animals by the turn of the 20th century.
That's when conservationists, including President Theodore Roosevelt, intervened to save the species from extinction. Beyond today's wild herds in places like Yellowstone National Park, there are an estimated half-million bison, including animals in commercial herds, many of which have mixed cattle genetics.
Yet resistance to free-roaming bison lingers.
In Montana, livestock producers and property rights advocates have filed lawsuits to stop the spread of an animal that ranchers say can tear down fences, spread disease and compete with domestic cattle for grass.
This week in Boulder, Colo., city officials citing cost concerns and public opposition rebuffed a proposal from Ted Turner to donate a bison herd for viewing along U.S. Highway 36.
John Calvelli with the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the "vote bison" campaign sponsors, said the effort is meant to transcend political concerns and instead mark the animal's place in American cultural history.
"This isn't about getting into the middle of these issues of bison and property rights," he said. "No matter what political stripe you come from, we can all agree on the important role that bison have played."
Other sponsors of the campaign are the Intertribal Buffalo Council, which includes 57 tribes, and the National Bison Association.
In recent years, federal and state agencies, wildlife advocates and Indian groups have revived efforts to put wild bison on more parts of the Western landscape.
That includes the transfer in March of about 60 Yellowstone bison to northeastern Montana's Fort Peck Reservation.
The Interior Department also has been considering bison for public lands, including Badlands National Park on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.