File photo of a herd of bison grazing in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A herd of bison graze in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., on June 20, 2011.

Forum News Service

WASHINGTON- North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven is pushing for the American bison to get some national recognition.

Republican Hoeven and Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico introduced the National Bison Legacy Act on Monday to make the American bison the country's national mammal.

"The bison is one of the most powerful and inspiring symbols of America and it is only fitting that it serve as our national mammal," said Hoeven in a statement. "The National Bison Legacy Act recognizes the cultural and economic importance of the bison in North Dakota and across our nation. The noble creatures truly reflect the frontier spirit and rugged strength of our nation."

The Westminster-based National Bison Association supports the legislation. Dave Carter, its executive director, said he met with Hoeven's people last week and said he was "pleased (Hoeven) would be taking the lead on the effort.

"This animal has played such an incredible role in not only shaping the culture of the U.S. but shaping the ecosystem," Carter said.

He said bison can be found in every state. Wild herds exist mostly in the Midwest, Southwest, Alaska and the Canadian plains, Carter said, but there are wild herds as far east as Kentucky and there is a small herd on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California.

Bison used to range from the Yukon flats down to northern areas of Mexico and from coast to coast, Carter said. Before 1800, there were an estimated 60 million bison in the U.S. But in less than 100 years, humans managed to hunt the animal to near extinction, he said. In the early 1900s, there were fewer than 1,000 bison left on the continent.

The U.S. saved the animal through conservation efforts, and today there are about 500,000 bison roaming in the wild or on ranches in North America.

Other North Dakota members of Congress also support the bison legislation.

"I am in full support and will be happy to carry the bill in the House if it passes the Senate," Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer said in a statement. "There is no more noble mammal other than the human."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp D-N.D., also supports the legislation.

"Bison and North Dakota go hand-in-hand -- whether it's the mascot for a football team, or the world's largest buffalo monument in Jamestown," she said in a statement. "Last year, I worked to designate November 1 as National Bison Day to help reinforce the great symbol that Bison are and have been for our state, and I'll continue to support any effort to pay respect to an animal that's such a significant part of many Native American cultures and our state's rich heritage."

Hoeven said he doesn't foresee much opposition to the bill and said he hopes Congress will pass it by the end of the year. Carter said efforts in the past to get the animal declared the national mammal have run into procedural issues in the House.

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