When the bison returns, will the ecosystem follow suit?

Eisenberg, who has spent his career studying wolves and bison, applies a combination of western science and traditional ecological knowledge, an area of ​​environmental study based on ancient indigenous knowledge. The area is particularly important to bison restoration efforts, she said, given that Plains Indians – a term used to describe a number of native tribes that inhabit the Great Plains of the United States and the United States. Canada – depended on the animal and its habitat for thousands of years.

“Historically, bison would have moved in this landscape based on fire, Native Americans, predators, and climate,” said Kyran Kunkel, conservation biologist and affiliate professor at the University of Montana and associate researcher at the Smithsonian Institute. . Kunkel is also working with the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit group that aims to restore bison, remove fences, and replenish fragments of private and public land to restore the native prairie ecosystem.

“They moved around and created a very heterogeneous landscape,” he added. “And so they had an impact on the grass, and vice versa, and that’s what led to the diversity of ecosystems there – birds, small mammals, large mammals and insects,” he said. .

“The change we are seeing today has happened because of what we have done directly to other species, not just the loss of bison, but also the control and management of predators with fencing, cultivation. hay and pasture handling, ”Kunkel said.

The biggest impact the bison would have on grassland restoration, said Curtis Freese, a former World Wildlife Fund and American Prairie Reserve biologist, would be after the fences and man-made water sources were removed, and the bison could interact with the fire. Fire is a natural and essential part of the grassland ecosystem. Working in concert with the grazing of herbivores, it accelerates decomposition which returns nutrients to the soil. Before European colonization, native tribes would intentionally set the prairie on fire, knowing that once the grass was burnt it would regenerate in a matter of weeks, and then the bison would show up to eat the nutrient-rich grasses.

“Now you have a functioning ecosystem,” said Freese, “where the dominant grazer can graze as it has historically done to create the heterogeneous habitat that has been crucial to support evolution, especially of prairie birds. . “

Bison are also a valuable source of protein for carnivores in the wild as well as for tribes, who also want to reintegrate bison meat into their diet. Their carcasses are home to swift foxes, golden eagles, grizzly bears, wolves, even beetles and nematodes. “And then, of course, it’s like taking a bag of nitrogen fertilizer and throwing it on the ground,” Freese said.

Besides Native American efforts to restore bison, conservation groups across the United States have long fought to bring bison back to parts of their range. The American Bison Society, the Boone and Crockett Club, and the New York Zoological Society have all done research on the ecology and spread of bison. One of the most promising efforts is taking shape on historic bison habitat in central Montana, under the leadership of the American Prairie Reserve. The association has a herd of around 810 bison on the land it has acquired so far, but many cattle ranchers see this effort as a serious threat to their livelihoods and way of life, which could further marginalize their businesses.

In Glacier County, homeland of the Blackfeet reserve, livestock is the engine of the local economy. Many ranchers, including some Native Americans, view bison as a threat, as a competition for scarce resources, such as grass and water, and potential vectors of deadly diseases for livestock. Yet other ranchers are attempting to regenerate the land by changing the way cattle are grazed, which in some cases includes managing livestock in a way that mimics the way bison historically grazed and moved through the land.

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