Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Where the buffalo roam


Prior to the white man, the great prairies of North America supported 30+ million bison along with a  myriad of plant and animal species that truly boggled the mind. After the white man arrived, with cattle, corn fields and systematic slaughter of the bison in hand, the grasslands of America were reduced to just a faded memory, something thought to be lost forever, until now.

When white settlers first arrived, a large swath of the U.S. was blanketed in tallgrass prairie. But turmoil came to the landscape shortly thereafter, as those settlers mowed down the bountiful biodiversity to get at the fertile soil beneath. Of the 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie that existed, only four percent of it remains today, ghosts among the cornfields.

It wasn’t just delicate grasses and wildflowers that were wiped out. An estimated 30 million bison roamed the Lower 48 before an extermination campaign brought that number down to around 300 by 1884. The animals have since rebounded somewhat in the the forests of the West and plains of the South, but the remaining tallgrass prairies in more northerly latitudes like Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana are largely devoid of the grass-munching, mud-wallowing ungulates.

Enter the bison ...

The reason it isn’t a forest, though, is because disturbances beat back the trees. Those disturbances include fire, which Nachusa managers have used for years to slow woodland growth and provide crucial soil nutrients. Now, they have a partner in disturbance crime in the bison, who chow down on grass and spread fertilizing poop and pee all over the prairie.

Not surprisingly, plant communities with bison are becoming more diverse because the animals act as natural lawn mowers, opening up space for non-grass plants and flowers to grow. On the weird side of the ledger, Jones has found small animals in areas that bison frequent are heavier. It’s not wholly clear why, though she hypothesized that “maybe it’s because bison are lumbering nutrient providers and urine might increase invertebrates for mice to chow down on.” After all, we know animals love pee.


Hopefully this is just a start point to restoring the prairie to it's rightful place in North America because it's the right thing to do, right?

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