Bigger Home on the Range for Montana Bison | Science

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For the first time in more than 15 years, Montana bison will roam new pastures on public land. After 4 years of review, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on July 28 accepted a request from the nonprofit organization American Prairie to release its bison herd on more than 24,000 acres in central Montana. This is the largest land approval BLM has granted to American Prairie. Many conservationists are celebrating the expansion, which is part of American Prairie’s efforts to restore Montana’s prairie ecosystems and restore America’s national mammal to its former glory.

“We get a lot of bad news about declining biodiversity,” says ecologist Liesbeth Bakker of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, who has worked with bison in Nebraska. “But then seeing those things really gives you hope; it makes you think that it is possible to restore these ecosystems and give these majestic animals the place they deserve. She notes that the benefits go beyond bison to a host of prairie plants and other native animals. Rancher groups and state officials are less enthusiastic, fearing bison will compete with cattle.

American Prairie aims to create the largest nature preserve in the lower 48 states using land purchased and leased in central Montana. Bison are instrumental in his goal of restoring the prairies. The organization already manages about 180,000 hectares of public and private land, much of it former ranches, on which they now graze about 800 bison. He hopes to increase that number to 1,000 now that he has more space.

Grasslands, especially tallgrass prairies, are among the most threatened and least protected ecosystems in the world, and they have been relatively poorly restored. Some old grasslands are difficult or impossible to restore, such as those converted to cropland or urban development. But there is hope for land used for cattle grazing, notes American Prairie spokeswoman Beth Saboe. “The biodiversity that can exist there is amazing.”

A few bison can help with the revival. While all grazing animals can improve grassland diversity if carefully managed in small numbers, no species does it quite like bison, says ecologist Joseph Bump of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities . Bison are less dependent on water sources than cattle, meaning they can travel farther from rivers to graze. As a result, they are less likely to trample riparian plants, allowing fish and amphibian diversity to recover.

Studies have also shown that, compared to cattle, bison graze in a way that makes them more efficient at trimming dominant grasses, allowing sunlight to reach small flowering plants called herbaceous plants. This stimulates their growth, attracting more native insects and birds. Bison also create swamps, depressions that fill with rainwater and attract micro-communities of diverse organisms. BLM cited this research, arguing that reintroducing bison to proposed sites in the Montana prairies will not only increase plant and animal diversity, but improve water quality and overall habitat conditions.

“I don’t see any ecological downside to this development,” says Bump. “And I don’t really see a long-term downside.”

Several organizations disagree. The United Property Owners of Montana, the Montana Stockgrowers Association, and the Montana Public Lands Council (MPLC) have fought the nonprofit’s efforts in recent years. They fear the BLM’s decision will mean a change in rangeland management that will promote restoration and harm ranching communities and livestock production, which is central Montana’s main industry.

“The final decision rendered by the BLM is a failure for our public lands system,” MPLC Chairwoman Vicki Olson said in a July 29 statement. “The course will be the ultimate victim.”

Montana lawmakers have already pledged to overturn the decision. “As we review BLM’s decision on bison grazing, we share Montanan frustration over the agency’s dismal and repeated failures to properly engage Montanans and act within its authority on this issue,” said Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. tweeted.

BLM addressed numerous concerns in a letter posted July 29. American Prairie’s Office of Demand’s 2021 environmental scan concluded that the change would not harm the land or the local ranching economy. Bump agrees. “The tension is in thinking it’s a choice or,” he says. “It’s a false dichotomy that we can’t have cattle and bison, we can certainly have both. Even in these human-dominated areas, there may still be room for these large animals.

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