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Ready for a 'national mammal'? Bison fans are

For the first time in more than a century, a herd of purebred Yellowstone bison are roaming in Montana. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

Fans of bison are lobbying Congress to declare America's largest land mammal the "national mammal" -- putting it right up there with the bald eagle as an American icon. But bison have their critics, as well as competition: killer whales are mammals, too, and then there's that other widespread mammal: humans.

"The North American Bison is an enduring symbol of America, its people and a way of life," Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., said in a statement Friday announcing the "National Bison Legacy Act."

"Throughout history, the bison has been the center of the economic and spiritual lives of American Indians and is an important historical symbol of the United States," added co-sponsor Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.


They introduced the bill at the request of an alliance among the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Intertribal Buffalo Council and the National Bison Association.

Nearly 60 Yellowstone bison are back home on Montana's range, but not everyone's happy about it.

"The bison is the nation’s most culturally recognizable animal and as such deserves recognition through designation and celebration," the alliance noted. "Bison currently appear on two state flags, on the seal of the Department of the Interior, and on U.S. currency. In addition, bison have been adopted as the state mammal of Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas."

Tens of millions of bison, or buffalo, once roamed North America, but the species dwindled to about 1,000 by the early 1900s. The numbers are back to an estimated 20,000 in the wild today. In addition, about 500,000 commercial bison are on 4,000 ranches.

In recent years, efforts have been made to put wild bison on more parts of the West -- including the transfer in March of about 60 Yellowstone bison to Montana's Fort Peck Reservation. 

But the symbolic act would not provide added protections for wild bison, which have their enemies.

In Montana, The Associated Press noted, livestock producers and property advocates have filed lawsuits to stop free-roaming bison, arguing they tear down fences, spread disease and compete with domestic cattle for grass.

And Boulder, Colo., this week rebuffed billionaire Ted Turner's donation of a bison herd for public viewing. It cited cost concerns and public opposition.

John Calvelli, spokesman for the Wildlife Conservation Society, told the AP that the effort is meant to transcend such issues.

"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."

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