Some sounds are ancient, like the thunder of buffalo hooves across the prairie that turns the Great Plains into a giant drum. The American bison, our national mammal, was hunted to near extinction in the early 1800s, and by the end of this century there were less than a thousand left.

America’s largest land mammal, bison help balance and maintain a healthy ecosystem and help create habitat for many species, including plants and birds. Their hooves aerate the soil, disperse seeds and help plants grow.

Widespread restoration of bison on tribal lands in the Northern Great Plains can help support food sovereignty and restore the prairie ecosystem, a new study finds, according to a news release from South Dakota State University. Impacts on agricultural systems due to climate change can also be reduced by the presence of bison.

The study, “The Potential of Bison Restoration as an Ecological Approach to Future Tribal Food Sovereignty on the Northern Great Plains,” was published last month in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

“The buffalo is important to Indian communities, to our people culturally and ecologically to our lands,” InterTribal Buffalo Council President and Blackfeet Buffalo Leader Ervin Carlson said, according to the news release. “We know bringing them back will not only heal our people, but also help us cope with the changes we are seeing in our grasslands due to the drought.”

Once, 30 to 60 million bison traversed the Great Plains and were a primary source of hides and meat, fueling the economy of many Plains Indian tribes. In an attempt to destroy the livelihoods of tribal members, the massive buffalo hunt was encouraged by the US government. As bison numbers dwindled in the late 19th century, the tribes lost their primary food source and were driven to reservations.

“Today the herds are small and isolated. Today, there are about 350,000 plains bison in production herds, 30,000 in public herds, and about 20,000 bison in tribal herds,” said study lead author and landscape ecologist Hila Shamon. and mammalogist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, to EcoWatch in an email. .

“Bison are a social species and depend on their herd to survive; an evolutionary strategy to maximize fitness. They group together for predator vigilance, collective foraging and learning,” Shamon said.

Bison are “megaherbivores” — large herbivores that weigh more than 1,000 kilograms — and are significant contributors to the prairie grassland system, South Dakota State University reported. The physical impact of bison and other animals on the environment changes it in such a way that it creates habitat for different species.

As they graze, wallow and trample, bison make the landscape more habitable for hundreds of grassland species in different ways.

In the wake of bison grazing, grasses of varying heights provide the birds with nesting grounds, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Some birds even line their nests with bison fur.

When the great bison wallow, they create holes that fill when it rains, turning their marshes into amphibian breeding pools and watering holes for other grassland species. Several rare and medicinal plants also depend on these indentations in the ground to grow.

“Bison movements have caused nutrient cycles, altered vegetation structure and fire regimes which, in turn, have supported other prairie species. They are considered ‘ecosystem engineers’,” Shamon told EcoWatch.

“Today, most bison are no longer free-ranging and are kept in production or conservation herds. However, they can still impact the landscape. Studies show that in some management programs, bison can have positive impacts on restoring riparian vegetation and creating heterogeneous grasslands that can support many grassland specialists,” Shamon said.

Grasses are shorter where bison commonly graze, and prairie dogs dine on these shorter grasses and dig their burrows there, the World Wildlife Fund reported. When bison carve their way through the deep snow of a Great Plains winter, the paths they forge become “highways” for elk and pronghorn, among other inhabitants who stay during the winter months. winter months. By digging in the snow, the bison also make the hidden grass of the prairie accessible to animals that otherwise could not access it.

“Prairie species evolved alongside bison, an iconic animal central to Plains Indian culture and communities for centuries,” Shamon said, as reported by South Dakota State University. “In the context of a changing climate, continued and new research is needed to develop restoration and land management strategies that maximize biodiversity and meet the complex socio-economic and ecological needs of Indigenous nations.

For thousands of years, the tribes of the Great Plains used every part of the bison – including hides, bones and horns – for food and to make clothing, shelter, tools and musical instruments, as well than for other specialized uses.

“Buffaloes are the heart of our community,” said Daniel Kinsey, study co-author and faculty member at Aaniiih Nakoda College, as reported by South Dakota State University. “Fort Belknap reintroduced bison in the late 1970s, and we are fortunate to have such a successful program that is the product of hard working people. It is my duty to connect our students, the younger generation, to the bison and the ecosystem and to work with the students to incorporate our traditional knowledge into this research. We recently established a new ʔíítaanɔ́ɔ́nʔí/Tatag ́a (bison in the Aaniiih and Nakoda languages ​​respectively) research and education center for this purpose.

The bison is an extremely adaptable species able to adapt to high temperatures and lack of water. Despite their size, the needs of bison are not as great as those of cows when it comes to taking refuge in the shade and seeking water; thus, where bison graze, prairie streams are not invaded by sediment.

“Bison are adapted to the Great Plains climate,” Shamon told EcoWatch. “Their physiology is what makes them tolerant of extreme weather conditions.”

Compared to the rest of the country, the Northern Great Plains are becoming disproportionately hot and dry due to climate change, South Dakota State University reported. This will put the region’s agricultural system and prairie ecosystem at risk as the climate crisis continues. Impoverished prairie communities that depend on the environment for their livelihood will face a greater possibility of hardship.

“What we provide in this research paper are successful solutions that are being implemented on Indigenous lands. Many of these solutions may be applicable on other properties and some may not. The key is to maintain a high level of diversity and innovation to improve sustainable solutions to the impacts of climate change,” said Jeff Martin, director of research at the South Dakota Center of Excellence for Bison Studies. State University, as reported by South Dakota State University.

The quality of land on Native American reservations is often less than optimal, and poverty and food insecurity disproportionately affect tribal communities.

“In rural Native American communities, poverty is two to three times higher than in rural white communities, and although much of the grassland is used for agriculture, Native Americans are twice as likely to suffer from food insecure than whites and are 25% more likely to remain food insecure in the future,” reported South Dakota State University.

The restoration of buffalo herds on Great Plains tribal lands is strongly correlated with the establishment of Plains Indian food sovereignty. However, the number of bison that would be needed to achieve both herd restoration and tribal food sovereignty has yet to be achieved, South Dakota State University reported.

“A reintroduction plan involves a feasibility assessment. Certain criteria must be met in terms of habitat requirements, genetic viability of the population, social tolerance and funding. Each reintroduction is unique and must be tailored to a specific community and location,” Shamon told EcoWatch.

According to South Dakota State University, theories derived from commercial and conservation bison herds may need to be used to successfully reintroduce bison to tribal lands.

“Future success of bison reintroduction requires merging the concepts of conservation and commercial herds or growing both herds until production meets local community food demands and conservation meets service needs. ecosystems,” reported South Dakota State University.

The study recommended that management strategies for the reintroduction of bison to tribal lands include “indigenous and cultural knowledge” and be consistent with preserving the “wilderness” of bison for commercial and conservation herds. He also recommended monitoring how the reintroduction of bison affects an area’s biodiversity based on agreed monitoring and evaluation standards.

“We are renewing our relationship with the buffalo as parents, they are central to our lives,” said Roxann Smith, study co-author and member of Pt’e Stakeholder Group, Fort Peck Indian Reservation. , as reported by South Dakota State University. . “Together, our community reclaims our traditional ways and replenishes our ecosystem as we heal together.”