Bison are 2,000-pound keystone species, the largest land mammal in North America. But their effect on the environment can be seen from space in Yellowstone. As they graze grasslands, they create green waves in their wake.
That’s how scientists describe the emergence of new green vegetation that follows behind herds of herbivores like grazing bison. As bison (or buffalo as some call them) graze, they encourage new leaf growth, aerate the soil, and plant seeds. As they roll around on the ground, they create microclimates for foraging birds. Where the buffalo roam, they fertilize the ground and nurture biodiversity.
Today, indigenous peoples are helping bring the bison back, and the animals are being called “climate change heroes” by The Washington Post. Large herds of the animals are “engineering” the ecosystem in Yellowstone, creating their own green wave after other ungulates like elk and deer move on. It’s similar to how beavers create whole ecosystems with their activities.
In effect, the herbivores can create lush spring-like feeding conditions until late summer.
Bison Make a Comeback
It’s one hopeful story amid record heatwaves and talk of declaring a “climate emergency” in the Nation’s Capital. The news of the bison return comes right when we need to hear it, a healing story in many ways.
Over two hundred years ago, they sounded like thunder when they moved in unimaginable herds. Once numbering from 30-60 million, the US government sponsored the killing of the bison to “starve tribes out.” At the end of the 19th century, there were only a few hundred in the wild.
After non-native colonizers almost killed them all, the bison’s numbers have now recovered to hundreds of thousands.
Bison as ‘the Original Climate Regulator’
Native Americans have always held the bison sacred for many reasons.
Troy Heinert, a member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe, is leading efforts to bring back buffalo to tribal lands for many reasons. Lean bison meat is an important food source, particularly after the pandemic, but the tribes understand the importance of buffalo and other animals far beyond that.
“Buffalo is the original climate regulator,” said Heinert. “Just by how they use the grass, how they graze, how their hoofs are designed, the way they move. They did this job for us when we allowed them to be buffalo.”
In a previous NPR interview, Heinert explained how buffalo are important to all tribes on the InterTribal Buffalo Council, of which he is the executive director:
“The Lakota people and then ITBC, which has 76 member tribes, all have a unique connection with buffalo. Buffalo was our main food source. It was shelter. It was tools, weapons. But it was also more about learning. Our young men watched buffalo and saw how the males protected the cows and the calves. And it gave us a sense of resilience. You know, we view the buffalo as a relative, and we try to treat them as such. And many tribes have their own ceremonies and songs as it pertains to buffalo.”
After Yellowstone’s population was deemed high in 2021, Heinert worked to relocate them to get “as many live buffalo to as many tribal nations” as possible. Unlike cattle, bison are generally less destructive to their environment, with different grazing patterns over large expanses of acreage. Of course, they do produce methane, and the climate continues to change as the levels of carbon dioxide are 50% higher than before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Also, bison’s natural predators, wolves, continue to struggle as most have been listed as endangered again. With the return of bison, perhaps that could change too?
It’s great to see the bison returning, but that means more encounters with people. As wild animals, not livestock, the bison can be dangerous when people don’t give them enough room. It seems a good lesson in itself; if we leave room and respect nature, the rewards couldn’t be greater.
Video by NBC News:
White Buffalo Calf Woman
The Buffalo has figured prominently in Native prophecies and legends. A white buffalo can be seen as the most sacred living thing on Earth.
For thousands of years, the Lakota have told of a prophecy given by a woman who took the form of a white buffalo calf(or Ptesan Wi). She said the tribe would always be caretakers and guardians of sacred land. One day, after the birth of a white buffalo calf, she would return again.
“And when she promised to return again, she made some prophesies at that time ….One of those prophesies was that the birth of a white buffalo calf would be a sign that it would be near the time when she would return again to purify the world. What she meant by that was that she would bring back harmony again and balance, spiritually,” states The People’s Path.
Above: Dignity: Of Earth & Sky statue by sculptor Dale Lamphere to honor the cultures of the Lakota and Dakota people.
Restoring Harmony, Balance, and Spirituality
According to the National Park Service, the woman would return to “restore harmony and spirituality to a troubled world.”
Recently, a white buffalo calf was born in North Dakota, after another the previous year. It was seen as a significant sign of hope during the pandemic.
“I didn’t believe it. I said I’ll believe it when I see it because we were gifted a white buffalo last year, and just the odds that a calf would be born this year, or at all, are just astronomical,” said The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Jamie Azure.
Many tribes revered sighting a white buffalo, an albino sometimes seen protected inside the middle of a herd. When seen, it was sacred, a sign of prayers being heard, prophecies fulfilled, and good fortune to come.
Video by KX News: