One notable newcomer was a tall herbaceous plant called Stiff Goldenrod. Botanists have rarely encountered the species in unpaved areas, but they have found it regularly in areas where bison have roamed. Likewise, many grasses that have adapted well to drought are beginning to thrive in the bison ranges, along with 11 additional annuals never seen in such places before.
Environmentally friendly roots
While Ratajczak isn’t quite sure why bison would give these native species a greater chance to thrive, he does have a few hypotheses.
According to him, bison have irregular grazing habits, which means they trample grass in one place, carefully graze plants in another and leave everything else. In this way it creates many opportunities for plant biodiversity. On the other hand, cattle work more methodically and leave behind a uniform grazing landscape.
“The bison also make holes in the ground as they move,” Ratajczak explains. “On these stretches they roll on the ground to rub their winter fur, so that the soil in those places is of a very different nature than elsewhere.” The root pits left behind harden and turn into small puddles after some rain, creating miniature wetlands where other plant species can thrive.
Because bison promote the growth of various forms of vegetation, scientists believe the animals can help ecosystems become more resilient to drought, one of the major impacts of climate change in the American West.
For example, researchers have found many annual plants in grazing areas that germinate early in the year and then flower, produce their seeds and then go dormant during the hotter, drier months, only to spring back to life when weather conditions improve.
A new look at progress
Baldis was impressed with the scope of the new study, saying its findings confirm “what we already know about the importance of bison as a major species.”
According to Beldis, bison enhance the presence of butterflies, salamanders, and reptiles by creating habitats for these species and the plants these creatures need to survive. When large herbivores shed their thick winter coat, all of that hair is used by nesting birds. “In bison territory I’ve seen ospreys flying overhead and at first glance they seem to have snakes in their mouths, but what they carry are thick tufts of buffalo hair to match their nests.” (See more photos of bison – America’s “national” mammal.)
Baldes is now working to reintroduce bison to the ecosystems they once occupied, such as the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, where about 100 bison have been released into the wild. He says the idea is gaining traction in the United States and Canada, in part because of studies like this one. Another recent study suggests that reintroduction of bison could also help Native American peoples achieve economic sustainability and have greater control over their food resources.
By combating environmental exploitation, reintroducing key species like bison to their tribal areas, and reviving Native American languages, “we ensure that our people will be proud to belong to Shoshone, Arapaho, Blackfeet, Crow, Cheyenne, or any of the 574 other nations.” They are federally recognized in this country, and each has its own story to tell,” says Baldis.
“We’ve had colonization, not just with Native Americans but with land use,” he says. “The land has been plowed and paved, fenced and closed—all on the basis of the idea of progress.”
If bison reintroduction is successful, Baldis says, environmental health should be a top priority. “This colonial mentality has driven predators to extinction and buffaloes to disappear,” he says. “And so we have to look again at what progress means.”
This article was originally published in English on nationalgeographic.com.
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