BILLINGS, Mont. — Western lawmakers want to elevate the Plains bison to a status similar to that of the 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 Ezni, 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.