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Reintroduced bison are transforming the shortgrass prairies, promoting biodiversity and water retention. Their natural grazing patterns help restore ecological balance, offering hope against climate change impacts.

In the vast shortgrass prairies of Montana, a quiet revolution is taking place. The American plains bison, once nearly hunted to extinction, are now at the forefront of a promising ecological restoration effort. Scientists and conservationists believe these majestic creatures could hold the key to reversing the damage inflicted on these landscapes by decades of mismanagement.

The prairie, a unique ecosystem that spans across 71 million hectares from the US/Canadian border to the east of the Rocky Mountains, has suffered significant ecological decline. For over a century, wildlife has been pushed out to make room for cattle and non-native plant species. However, the reintroduction of bison is showing signs of hope for this beleaguered environment.

Hila Shamon, a research ecologist with the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, has been studying the impact of bison on the prairie. Partnering with American Prairie, a conservation organization, Shamon has observed that bison's natural behaviors are beneficial to the prairie's health, particularly in water retention and biodiversity enhancement.

Unlike cattle, which tend to overgraze near water sources, bison roam more extensively and have less destructive grazing patterns. Their movements create "wallows," depressions in the ground that collect water and promote the growth of insects, which in turn support birds and small mammals. Their grazing habits also help distribute nutrients across the prairie, aiding plant growth and diversity.

The bison's return is a second chance for the species and the prairie. With about 30,000 bison now in conservation herds and many more on farms, the focus is on how their presence can rehabilitate the land. American Prairie is utilizing bison as a natural tool to restore the prairie, with early signs showing greener, more vibrant ecosystems where bison have replaced cattle.

Plains bison co-evolved with the short-grass prairie. In the 12,000 years since the end of the Pleistocene, they have proven themselves to be potent ecosystem engineers.

An adult bison eats about 25lb (11kg) of grass a day. The grasses adapted to their foraging. Vegetation across the plains uses the nutrients in their dung. Birds pluck their fur from bushes to insulate their nests.

The benefits extend beyond vegetation. According to the BBC, Bison's presence has been linked to increased bird diversity and the return of other wildlife, such as deer and elk. Their impact on riparian zones, the areas around rivers and streams, is particularly noteworthy. These areas are critical for wildlife, providing corridors for movement and supporting a range of species.

The restoration efforts are not just about the bison but also about leveraging the inherent resilience of the prairie. For instance, the reintroduction of bison has facilitated the return of beavers, which further aids in the recovery of the ecosystem by building dams that support the regrowth of trees and other vegetation.

While the evidence points to the positive influence of bison, some cattle ranchers argue that the issue is more nuanced. They suggest that with careful management, cattle can also coexist with a healthy prairie ecosystem.

The story of the bison's return is one of hope and resilience. It underscores the importance of understanding and working with natural processes to restore and protect our planet's ecosystems, particularly as the threat of climate change looms larger.

As the prairie slowly regains its former vitality, the bison stand as a testament to the power of conservation and the promise of ecological restoration.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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