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Science And Nature

Bison are bringing biodiversity back again to Kansas prairie land

American bison were once so numerous that in 1889 the superintendent of the National Zoo wrote that attempting to count them will be like tallying the amount of leaves in a forest. Its a lot of the key reason why the precise ecological impact of North Americas largest land mammals was never measured, before colonizers hunted them to near-extinction in the 19th century. But current efforts to revive them with their historic range have affirmed what conservationists and Native Americans have already been saying for many years: Bison are critical to the prairies health.

New research on the long-term great things about reintroducing bison demonstrates their presence makes the land more biodiverse and resilient to drought.A paper published this week in the journal PNAS measures the ripple ramifications of the giant grazers on the tallgrass prairie ecosystem which used to stretch from modern-day Texas to Minnesota and cover 170 million acres of THE UNITED STATES. Today, no more than 4 percent of the old-growth prairie remains, mostly in the Flint Hill region of Kansas where in fact the study occurred. The info, which spans multiple decades following bisons return, is unequivocal: The herbivores a lot more than doubled the amount of native species in tallgrass habitats.

[Related: Wolves and beavers might have magical ecosystem effectsif they will have space to thrive]

Bison will be the kind of organism youd have a much a big impact, says Zak Ratajczak, a biologist at Kansas State University and lead writer of the analysis. Theyre large, travel long distances, and may consume plant species on a scale that changes competition.

In addition they focus on eating big bluestem along with other tough grasses which are more prone to be passed over by other herbivoresincluding non-native cattle. These grasses grow fast and tall, shading out other plants that serve an array of functions, such as for example wildflowers that support pollinators and legumes that fix nitrates in the soil. Given plenty of time, says Ratajczak, the cumulative, cascading impacts [of the bison] are large.

Because the 1980s, scientists at the 8,616-acre Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas have documented changes to plant biodiversity with the reintroduction of the bison herd, whose numbers recently have held steady between 275 and 300. For comparison, in addition they tracked the fitness of regions of tallgrass prairie which were munched down by cattle, along with parts that went entirely untouched.

Reintroduced bison herd on green Kansas prairie
The bison herd at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas now numbers in the hundreds. Barbara Van Slyke

Aside from the clear positive impact of the bison, they found additional key differences.First, while cattle grazing wasnt even half as effectual as bison grazing, it had been better for biodiversity than no grazing at all. And second, bison-occupied prairie was better in a position to weather periods of drought, because of greater variety in plant species and newly stimulated growth from grazing.

Its heartening to see resilience that it might weather some extent of warming, says Ratajczak, pointing out that will undoubtedly be especially important with the predicted increase in intensity and frequency of extreme heat soon because of climate change.

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Eric Patterson, the top ranger at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, sees the parks herd around 100 reintroduced bison having an identical effect on the variety and abundance of local plant species. He tells visitors of the nearly 11,000-acre site, that is situated in same Flint Hills region because the research station, that grazing is really a fundamental element of maintain balance in the prairie ecosystem, alongside moisture, fire, and human use.

Still, both Patterson and Ratajczak stress that, while returning bison to the prairie is fantastic so far as biodiversity goes, its not just a conservation cure-all. Historically, the megafauna likely played a central role in balancing life on tallgrass prairiebut no more than 4 percent of this ecosystem remains intact. Today, cattle grazing, agriculture, and urban development dominate the fantastic Plains.

Adult bison standing in a roundup machine while a biologist attached an ID tag to its ear
Jeff Taylor, among the head managers of the Konza bison herd and research contributor, attaches an identification tag to a grown-up male through the annual round-up. Barbara Van Slyke

I possibly could observe how people could see this as a cattle versus bison story, says Ratajczak. But a significant thing I am hoping doesnt get lost is that cattle might have a positive effect on native species, too.

Compared to that end, Patterson says some biologists are employing the data theyre gaining from studying reintroduced bison to build up cattle-grazing practices that mimic the wild herbivores impacts. He and Ratajczak also explain that in recent decades, cattle ranchers have helped keep up with the critical burn regimen previously sparked by lightning and Native Americans.

[Related: For prairie flowers, fire may be the ultimate matchmaker]

Bison earn every accolade they get, but there arent many left, says Patterson. Findings from pockets of intact prairie just like the Kansas Flat Hills have to be adapted for the grazersand landscapeswe still have.

Places like [the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve] are awesome, Patterson adds. But 11,000 acres is a museum artifact if we fail in the bigger mission to encourage better stewardship of the rest.

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