When the bison returns, does it follow the ecosystem?

Eisenberg, who has spent her career studying wolves and bison, applies a blend of Western science and traditional environmental knowledge, a field of environmental study that draws on ancient Aboriginal knowledge. This area is particularly important to bison restoration efforts, she said, given that the Plains Indians — a term used to describe a number of indigenous tribes living in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada — relied on the animal and its home to thousands of indigenous people. Years.

“Historically bison would have moved over those landscapes with fire dependence, Native American dependence, predator dependence, and climate dependence,” said Kieran Konkel, a conservation biologist and associate professor at the University of Montana and a research associate at the University of Montana. Smithsonian Institution. Kunkel also collaborates with the American Prairie Reserve, a non-profit group that aims to restore bison, remove fences, and pool portions of private and public land to restore the native prairie ecosystem.

“They were moving around and creating a landscape with a great deal of heterogeneity,” he added. “And so they were affecting the grass, and vice versa, and that’s what led to the diversity of the ecosystems there – birds, small mammals, large mammals, insects,” he said.

“The change we see today has been brought about by what we have done to other species directly — not just the loss of bison but the control and management of predators through fencing, hay cultivation, and pastureland manipulation,” Konkel said.

Curtis Friese, a former biologist with the World Wildlife Fund and the American Prairie Reserve, said the biggest impact bison could have on prairie restoration would be felt after fences and artificial water sources were removed, and bison might react to fire. Fire is a natural and essential part of the grassland ecosystem. Working in concert with grazing herbivores, it speeds up decomposition that returns nutrients to the soil. Before European settlement, Aboriginal tribes would deliberately set fire to the prairies, knowing that once the grass was burned, it would regenerate within several weeks, then the bison would appear to eat the nutrient-rich weeds.

“You now have a functioning ecosystem, where dominant grazers can graze as they have historically done to create a heterogeneous habitat that has been critical to supporting the evolution of, in particular, grassland birds,” Fries said.

Bison is also a valuable source of protein for carnivores in the wild as well as for tribes, who also wish to return bison meat to their diets. Their bodies support swift foxes, golden eagles, grizzly bears, wolves, down to beetles and nematodes. “Then of course it’s like taking a bag of nitrogen fertilizer and tossing it on the ground,” Fries said.

Alongside the efforts of Native Americans to restore the bison, conservation groups across the United States have long struggled to return the bison to parts of their original habitat. The American Bison Society, the Boone & Crockett Club, and the New York Zoological Society all research bison ecology and reproduction. One of the most promising efforts is taking shape at the historic bison habitat in central Montana, under the auspices of the American Prairie Preserve. The nonprofit has a herd of about 810 bison on the land they have acquired so far, but many ranchers see this effort as a serious threat to their livelihoods and lifestyle that could further marginalize their business.

in Glacier County, Home to the Blackfeet Reserve, ranching drives the local economy. Many ranchers—including some Native Americans—view the bison as a threat, as competition for scarce resources, such as grass and water, and as potential vectors of diseases fatal to livestock. However, other ranchers are attempting to regenerate the land by changing their grazing methods, which in some cases include managing livestock in ways that mimic how bison historically grazing and their movement across the land.

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