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The benefits of returning bison to the Great Plains

The infamous line, “Oh! give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play,” opens Dr. Brewster M. Higley’s poem about his homestead in the newly-formed state of Kansas in 1871. While Higley’s poem eventually came to depict the ultimate Americana, in actuality the American bison was quickly disappearing from the landscape at the very same time.

An estimated 30-60 million bison populated North America at the time of colonization. The thunderous hooves drummed across the lands with each stampede. For millennia, bison provided a significant source of protein, shelter, clothing, tools, ceremonial objects, musical instruments and much more for many Plains tribes, including the Lakota.

The American bison (Bison bison), the largest land mammal on the continent, weighing up to 2,200 pounds and running up to 30 mph, has long been a part of the ecological landscape and was a vital part of the Plains ecological system. They were the reason for the vast biodiversity here. By the late 1800s, less than 1,000 bison remained. The landscape began to change and eventually brought severe dust storms in the plains by the 1930s, brought on by ecological decay, a trickledown effect of the destruction of bison.  

In the early 1990s, several conservation entities started banding together to reintroduce the American bison to the Great Plains. Various efforts in South Dakota have occurred, including a November 2020 release of 100 bison onto 28,000 acres of Rosebud Tribal lands. According to South Dakota State University’s 2017 census, there were 30,035 bison in the state at that time, with numbers rising. 

With their massive size, some might say it’s a mistake to return them to the plains with the current constraints of modern-day society. Still, bison and their behaviors may show otherwise by sheer natural charisma and biology. Bison roam large areas of land constantly, grazing on grasses, collecting and redistributing seeds of indigenous plants, wallowing and producing depressions in the ground, rubbing against woody vegetation, and aerating the soil naturally by the sheer mass of their bodies on tiny feet. 

All of these things help contribute to a healthy, balanced ecosystem. Everything from prairie dogs and long-billed curlew, to plants and insects, benefits from the natural behaviors of the bison. And all of these species evolved on the plains with the bison, so they are best suited to sustain their lives and future generations when living alongside these giant herbivores. Bison are also highly adaptable and adjust to higher temperatures and drought conditions. There are some challenges to having bison on the plains in current times. First, the land needed to roam adequately and feed is more massive than what is currently available. Present habitats need to be more significant to sustain bison as wildlife. Being herd animals who need each other to survive, it will not work to have smaller family groups migrating through the lands. They can make due to being supported as livestock, but not wildlife. Second, due to the massive slaughter of bison in the late 1800s, it takes a lot of human work to ensure the genetic diversity of a herd since most bison today are generated from a small herd of only 100.

Lastly, and tying into the first two points, ensuring that herds come from brucellosis-free stock is challenging. Brucellosis is a bacteria found in cattle, swine, goats, sheep, and dogs. It poses severe implications as a human public health hazard, especially if the bison are being raised as a food source.

A slightly more minor complication is that humans have expatriated wolves and black and grizzly bears, the only natural predators of bison, from many areas. These predators help maintain healthy herd sizes while knocking off the weaker and ill animals. There are several herds throughout South Dakota —Wil but admire from afar! They have excellent smell and hearing but poor eyesight and consider many movements by humans as a threat.

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