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Why grazing bison could be good for the planet;

Headline: “Bison Grazing: A Sustainable Solution for Planetary Health”

It takes mettle to live on Montana’s shortgrass prairie. It’s dry, windy and a long way from anywhere. In summer, temperatures can top 100F (38C). In winter, the mercury plunges to -50F (-45C). In some spots, it is more than an hour’s drive on gravel roads to buy a loaf of bread. When you get back, grasshoppers start cannibalising their brethren impaled on your car grille.

The indigenous Blackfeet, Nakoda and Gros Ventre peoples successfully adapted to the harsh environment over many centuries. More recently, a handful of hardy white settlers managed it too. Both left their mark on this forbidding land with fire, arrows and the plough. The shortgrass prairie makes up 71 million hectares (27.413 sq miles) of remote land straddling the US/Canadian border to the east of the Rocky Mountains. This rare habitat is in ecological decline. For the last 150 years, wildlife have surrendered the prime habitat to cows. Crested wheatgrass, a non-native plant seeded by European settlers for their cattle, paints swathes of land yellow in summer.

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Today, though, parts of the landscape are being shaped by a different resident. This one sports a pair of black horns and a thick cape of curly brown hair. The North American plains bison has a long history here, albeit one that suffered a brutal interruption. For a century and a half, their distinctive humped shoulders and bearded faces were missing from America’s grasslands.

Tribes and conservation organisations have recently started bringing the bison back. And scientists studying the returns are discovering that getting the 2,000lb (900kg) grazer back in its native ecosystem could be key to the future of the prairie. When I visit one of these projects in summer 2023, wilting in the searing summer heat of the scorched prairie, I wonder what a giant, fur-covered herbivore is doing to help. The bison’s biggest service, I soon find out, is to assist the prairie in holding onto its water. Bison on the shortgrass prairie send a strong message about the importance of native grazers for landscape resilience. They may offer the prairie a lifelines climate change tightens its grip.

In the quest for sustainable practices to combat climate change and promote biodiversity, the overlooked heroes may come in an unexpected form: grazing bison. These magnificent creatures, often associated with the American prairies, can play a crucial role in enhancing the health of our planet.

Bison, being natural grazers, possess a unique ability to regenerate ecosystems. Their grazing patterns promote the growth of diverse grasses and plants, preventing the dominance of invasive species. This, in turn, fosters a healthier and more resilient ecosystem that supports a variety of wildlife. Unlike traditional livestock, bison are well-adapted to native landscapes, minimizing the environmental impact associated with conventional agriculture.

One of the key advantages of bison grazing lies in their minimal reliance on human intervention. Bison are well-equipped to thrive in diverse climates and are less susceptible to diseases that often affect domesticated livestock. This reduces the need for antibiotics and other interventions, making bison an environmentally friendly alternative for sustainable agriculture.

Furthermore, the impact of bison on carbon sequestration cannot be underestimated. Their grazing behavior stimulates the growth of deep-rooted grasses, which can sequester carbon more effectively than shallow-rooted plants. By encouraging the proliferation of these carbon-absorbing plants, bison contribute to the fight against climate change.

Integrating bison into sustainable land management practices also offers economic benefits to local communities. Bison ranching promotes wildlife tourism and provides opportunities for Indigenous and local communities to engage in conservation efforts. This, in turn, strengthens the connection between people and the land while fostering a sense of responsibility for environmental stewardship.

In conclusion, the reintroduction of grazing bison represents a holistic and sustainable approach to land management. From enhancing biodiversity and carbon sequestration to providing economic opportunities for communities, these majestic creatures emerge as unsung heroes in the global effort to mitigate climate change and restore the health of our planet. As we face the challenges of the 21st century, perhaps the key to a sustainable future lies in the wisdom of the bison, harmoniously grazing towards a healthier, more balanced planet.

Today, however, bison are getting a second chance

Plains bison spent thousands of years engineering a distinctive grassland ecology from Northern Canada through Montana to Mexico. But more than a century ago, this influence abruptly stopped. A few decades of slaughter led bison numbers to plummet from 60 million to barely 800 living wild in the US and Canada by 1889. Market force and government policy replaced bison and native people with ranches, white settlement and cattle. For a hundred years, cattle claimed the prairie as their own. But while they were easier to turn into steaks, they were not as finely tuned for prairie life.

Today, however, bison are getting a second chance. Tribal reservations are at the forefront of their recovery, taking excess bison from Yellowstone National Park and restoring them to treaty lands. American Prairie is also playing a part, buying ranches and returning bison to places where cattle were once king. About 30,000 bison now exist in conservation herds in various parks and protected areas across the country. More then 10 times that number exist on bison farms.

Scientists like Shamon are watching it all closely to see how the return of bison affects the land. “Cows don’t move as much,” Shamon says. When the weather gets hot, they gravitate to the creek bottoms for shade and the cooling water. When it’s cold, cows hunker down behind creekside shrubs to shelter from the wind.

This preference for spending time in the riparian zone starts a vicious cycle. By browsing the trees and shrubs they reduce the amount of available shade, Shamon tells me. Their chewing means less leaf litter to cover the ground and, when the shrubs die, less roots to stabilise the stream banks. Over time, the soil around the creeks dries out, the boxelder, cottonwoods, wild rose and snowberry disappear, and the streambanks get taken over by non-native grasses. What was once a cooling refuge for wildlife becomes almost as forbidding as the uplands.

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