Some things that you read stick in your mind for a long time, like an article about how the bison were returning to the American prairie even as the people left. I don’t remember now which state it was, but I was remembering it as I have been seeing stories about the decline of soil fertility in Kansas.
It is actually a story about paradigm change – the kind that it is hard to see when we are in the middle of it. Yet it is often told as if it is a single issue story – about buffalo, about wheat, about cattle ranching, and about economic growth – as these issues are not all intertwined.
Annual vs perennial wheat
Let’s start with wheat. Annual wheat plants accounts for 95 percent of the wheat grown globally. It requires intensive inputs, and harvesting and replanting regularly disrupts the soil. Perennial plants, on the other hand, stay in the ground year after year, preventing erosion and enriching the soil with strong root systems that let them reach deep for water and nutrients.
“Annual crops don’t function like an ecosystem,” says Land Institute president Rachel Stroer. “They don’t steward the ecosystem in which they’re grown. We try to mimic the ecosystem with all kinds of subsidies. But perennial grasses are deeply rooted — and that’s exactly the characteristic that we’re trying to bring to the agriculture system.”
And Stroer believes that this is the characteristic that may be needed to sustain a growing population on a changing planet. Not to mention the health of the Kansas economy.
And that brings us to the native grasses, which once covered the Prairie just as the bison herds did, but are rapidly shrinking due to decades of cattle ranching and wheat growing. Those native grasses have deep roots, some as much as 12 feet, enriching the soil and anchoring it against the state’s strong winds.“This is what made our soils strong enough that we could live here,” says Lorna Harder, a private landowner who has been working for decades to conserve the native prairie.
Of the approximately four percent of the tallgrass prairie that remains, most is in Kansas, which has very little public land. Harder and her husband, Bob, have spent 30 years transforming 40 of their more than 100 acres in south-central Kansas into a native prairie preserve. Previously, a local farmer had overstocked it with cattle who had grazed it almost into oblivion.
“We think of land in terms of possession, as if it is ours to do with as we please, instead of thinking of it as if it’s ours to steward for the future,” Harder says. She recognizes the stewardship of earlier generations, specifically the Kanza people of the Kaw Nation who lived on the land 150 years ago but are not recognized by the state named after them. In 2019, a local retired Mennonite pastor paid reparations to the Kanza Heritage Society to help the Kanza Heritage Society preserve historic sites, and Harder plans to leave reparations in her will.
Restoring prairie means restoring bison
Such restoration of the American prairie has been taking place across much of the prairie region in recent decades. And it has gone along with work to restore the animals that were once indigenous to the prairies – the buffalo – and their management by Indigenous peoples.
The Smithsonian Magazine recently had an in-depth article on this work, first published in Undark, that draws the connections between restoration of the native prairie, restoration of the bison, and restoration of Indigenous land management practices, including cultural burning.
Bison is the scientific name for the animal, but buffalo is the word that most Indigenous people use. “Research suggests there were 30 million to 60 million bison in North America in the 1500s. Four hundred years later, roughly 1,000 bison remained….” Many indigenous people died along with the bison. In the Starvation Winter of 1883 to 1884, when the buffalo were almost gone and the US government did not have adequate rations to feed the Blackfeet people on the northern plains of Montana, nearly 600 Blackfeet men, women, and children — more than a sixth of the tribe’s population — died of malnutrition.
The Great Plains ecosystem that the bison co-evolved with is among the most endangered in the world. “According to recent estimates, about half of the North American Great Plains region has been converted to cropland, development, or other uses — with more conversion happening every year. When the land is converted for these uses, biodiversity declines and habitats are fragmented, making the land less resilient to global forces such as a changing climate.”
One of the efforts to restore bison is taking shape on historic bison habitat in central Montana, where the American Prairie Reserve has a herd of around 810 bison living on a former cattle ranch. It is part of a wider effort by the Blackfeet Tribe and Kainai Nation to restore a free-ranging herd to tribal land that eventually could roam free on both tribal and public land and cross back and forth between the US and Canada.
“For now, they live on tribal land and are managed by the Blackfeet Nation Buffalo Program, a branch of the tribe’s agriculture department that manages the herds owned by the tribe on the Blackfeet Reservation land. Tribal members would be able to hunt the bison, which would keep their population in check and restore the traditional relationship between bison and hunter at the core of Blackfoot spirituality.”
Protection against climate change
In 2014, when tribes from both sides of the border came together on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation to sign the Buffalo Treaty, it resulted from decades-long efforts by the Blackfoot tribes and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Besides Native American efforts to restore bison, conservation groups throughout the US have worked for a long time to return bison to parts of their native range. And that is becoming ever more important, as the climate warms.
Restoring the grasslands offers insurance against climate change, because buffalo create more resilient grasslands and increase biodiversity, says Cristina Eisenberg, an Indigenous ecologist who works with the Blackfeet Tribe and Kainai Nation. Bison wallows — big open patches of dirt — also increase resiliency by bringing structural diversity to the landscape, she says.
“Bison would have historically been moving over that landscape depending on fire, depending on Native Americans, depending on predators, and depending on climate,” said Kyran Kunkel, a conservation biologist at the University of Montana. “The change we see today has occurred because of what we’ve done to other species directly — not just loss of bison but predator control and management with fencing, growing hay, and manipulating pasture lands,” he said. Restoring the ecosystem means that by grazing as they once did, the bison can create the heterogeneous habitat that has been crucial for other species, such as grassland birds.
So it’s all connected, really – the kind of bread and the kind of meat we eat is linked to how people manage the land. Introducing apex predators is happening on UK farms, in Europe, and on the US prairies, because these animals reshape the land and increase its fertility much more effectively than our human management strategies do. Producing meat and cheese and fish in laboratories will free up much of the land we currently use for ranching and intensive agriculture, protecting forests in the Amazon and elsewhere. The return of the bison, and the health of Indigenous peoples, is closely connected; healthier food saves costs more generally.
That’s the nature of paradigm change.
How to Save the Prairie, Acre by Acre. Sarah Spicer in the Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2021.
When the Bison Return, Will Their Habitat Rebound? Louise Johns, Undark, in the Smithsonian Magazine, Jun. 8, 2021
Once nearly extinct, bison are now climate heroes. Washington Post, Jul. 13, 2022
Gone for Thousands of Years, Wild Bison Return to the UK. Yale 360, Jul. 18, 2022
Where the bison could roam. New York Times, Jan. 10, 2023