A Bigger Home in the Range for Montana Bison | Science

For the first time in more than 15 years, the Montana bison will roam new grazing grounds on public lands. On July 28, after a four-year review, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a request by the nonprofit American Prairie to release their herd of bison to more than 24,000 acres in central Montana. This is the largest land permit BLM has issued to American Prairie. Many ecologists are celebrating the expansion, which is part of American Prairie’s effort to restore Montana’s prairie ecosystems and return the US national mammal to its former glory.

“We get a lot of bad news about biodiversity decline,” says ecologist Liesbeth Bakker of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, who has worked with bison in Nebraska. “But seeing these things really gives you hope; it makes you believe it’s possible to restore these ecosystems and give these majestic animals the space they deserve.” She notes that the benefits extend beyond bison and affect a variety of prairie plants and other native animals. Ranching groups and state officials are less enthusiastic, fearing the bison will compete with livestock.

American Prairie aims to create the largest conservation area in the lower 48 states using purchased and leased land in central Montana. Bison are instrumental in his goal of restoring the prairies. The organization already manages about 400,000 acres of public and private land, much of it former ranch land, where it now grazes about 800 bison. It hopes to expand that number to 1000 now that it has the extra space.

Grasslands, especially tall grass meadows, are among the most vulnerable and least protected ecosystems in the world, and they have seen relatively little restoration. Some former prairies are difficult or impossible to restore, such as B. the one that has been converted into farmland 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.”

Only a few bison can support rebirth. Although all grazing animals can improve grassland diversity when carefully managed in small numbers, no species does as well as bison, says ecologist Joseph Bump of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Bison are less dependent on water sources than cattle, which means they can be 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 effective at trimming dominant grasses, allowing sunlight to reach the smaller flowering plants known as weeds. This stimulates their growth and attracts more native insects and birds. Bison are also known to create wallows, depressions that fill with rainwater and attract microcommunities of diverse organisms. Citing this research, BLM argued that reintroducing bison to proposed sites in the Montana grasslands will not only increase plant and animal diversity, but will also improve water quality and overall living conditions.

“I see no ecological disadvantage of this development,” says Bump. “And I don’t really see a long-term downside in any way.”

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 are concerned that the BLM decision represents a shift in pasture management that favors recovery and will harm rancher communities and ranching, which is central Montana’s primary industry.

“The BLM’s final decision is a failure of our public land system,” MPLC Chair Vicki Olson said in a statement released July 29. “The pasture will be the ultimate sacrifice.”

Montana lawmakers have already vowed to reverse the decision. “As we review the BLM’s bison grazing decision, we share Montaners’ frustration at the agency’s deplorable and repeated failures to properly involve Montans and act within their authority on this matter,” said the Montana Governor , Greg Gianforte tweeted.

BLM addressed many of the concerns in a July 29 letter. The Bureau’s 2021 Environmental Analysis of American Prairie’s proposal concluded that the change would not harm the land or local livestock industries. Bump agrees. “The tension is thinking it’s an either/or,” he says. “It’s a false dichotomy that we can’t have ranching and bison, we certainly can have both. Even in these human-dominated areas, there may still be room for these large animals.”

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