When the bison comes back, will the ecosystem follow?

Eisenberg’s career has been studying wolves and bison. She combines Western science with traditional ecological knowledge, which is an environmental research field based on ancient indigenous knowledge. She said the field is particularly important for bison recovery efforts because the Plains Indians — a term used to describe the many indigenous tribes that live in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada — rely on bison and its habitat for thousands of years. year.

Kyran Kunkel, a conservation biologist and associate professor at the University of Montana and a research assistant on the project, said: “Bisons have historically moved around this land according to fire, Native Americans, predators, and climate. Smithsonian Institution. Kunkel also works with the US Prairie Reserve, a non-profit organization that aims to restore bison, demolish fences, and piece together fragments of private and public land to restore the local grassland ecosystem.

“They are moving and creating a landscape of great heterogeneity,” he added. “So they affect the grass, and vice versa, which is what causes the diverse ecosystems there-birds, small mammals, large mammals and insects,” he said.

“The changes we are seeing today are due to the direct changes we made to other species-not only the loss of bison, but also the control and management of predators, including fencing, planting hay and manipulating pastures,” Kunkel said.

Curtis Fries, a former biologist at the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Prairie Refuge, said that the greatest impact of bison on grassland restoration will be felt after fences and man-made water sources are pulled out, and bison may interact with fire. Fire is a natural part of the grassland ecosystem. It works with herbivores to graze, accelerates decomposition, and returns nutrients to the soil. Before Europeans settled, indigenous tribes would deliberately set fire to the grassland. They knew that once the grass burned, it would regenerate within a few weeks, and then bison would appear to eat the nutritious grass.

“Now you have a functioning ecosystem,” Fries said. “The dominant herbivores can graze and create heterogeneous habitats as they did in history, which is essential to support the evolution of grassland birds. “

Bison is also a valuable source of protein for wild carnivores and tribes, and they also hope to restore bison into their diet. Their corpses feed swift foxes, golden eagles, grizzly bears, wolves, all the way to beetles and nematodes. “Of course, it’s like pouring a bag of nitrogen fertilizer on the ground,” Fries said.

In addition to the Native American efforts to restore the bison, conservation organizations across the United States have also struggled for a long time to release the bison back to some native areas. The American Bison Association, the Boone and Crockett Club, and the Zoological Society of New York have all been studying bison ecology and reproduction. One of the most promising efforts under the guidance of the U.S. Prairie Refuge is the formation of a historic bison habitat in central Montana. The non-profit organization currently owns approximately 810 bison on the land they have acquired, but many cattle farmers believe that this effort poses a serious threat to their livelihoods and lifestyle, and may further marginalize their business.

In Glacier County, The location of the Blackfeet Reserve, the ranch boosts the local economy. Many ranchers—including some Native Americans—see bison as a threat, competition for scarce resources such as grass and water, and potential carriers of diseases that are fatal to cattle. However, other ranchers are trying to regenerate the land by changing grazing methods. In some cases, this includes managing cattle in a way that mimics the historical past of bison grazing and crossing the land.

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