Indigenous tribes are leading the effort to bring back the bison — a victory not only for the sake of biodiversity, but for the entire ecosystem they nurture
They appeared seemingly out of nowhere: dozens of massive animals lumbering up the shoulder of the road to cross to the fresh vegetation on the other side. The herd moved slowly, their soft, bovine eyes barely registering the stopped cars awaiting their passage. They quickly set to work mowing down the fresh springtime grass.
The bison’s quiet munching does more than nourish their bodies — it’s one of many things they do to nurture their entire ecosystem, one that is increasingly under threat from climate change. Grazing bison shaving down acres of vegetation leave more than dung behind: Their aggressive chewing spurs growth of nutritious new plant shoots, and their natural behaviors — the microhabitats they create by rolling in the ground, the many birds that forged symbiotic relationships with them — trickle down the food chain. Once bordering on extinction, bison now serve as a great provider for their ecosystems, standing as an example of the ways in which animal conservation and ecological protection can work in tandem.
“Buffalo is the original climate regulator,” said Troy Heinert, a member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe and executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a coalition working to restore the animal on tribal lands. “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.”
Tribes are leading the effort to bring back the bison, Heinert says, which in turn allows for the return of other native grasses, animals and insects — all of which will “help fight this changing climate.”
Bison, called buffalo by some Indigenous peoples, are mammoth creatures. Weighing up to 2,000 pounds, they are the largest land mammal in North America. Their giant horned heads balance on hulking sloped shoulders. This massive upper body sits on spindly goat-like legs, lending them an otherworldly quality — more Minotaur than moose. Despite their size, they have a gracefulness to them.
Two centuries ago, bison dominated much of the continent from Canada to Mexico, when tens of millions roamed North America. They were so numerous that the pounding of their hoofs beating across the land sounded like rolling thunder. For the many tribes of the plains region — the Lakota, the Shoshone, the Arapaho, to name a few — buffalo was a sacred animal that nourished their people and played an important ceremonial role. For European colonizers, the bison were both a commodity and a weapon. Americans massacred them by the thousands, selling their pelts and organizing vast sport hunts. As the United States pushed West in the 1800s, bison became a pawn in their quest to wrest Indigenous tribes off their ancestral homes. By killing as many bison as possible (in one case, the U.S. government provided ammunition to private hunters to illegally trespass on tribal land to kill buffalo), they attempted to starve tribes out. By the turn-of-the-20th century, millions of bison had been killed. In 1900, fewer than 1,000 — of an estimated 30 to 60 million — remained, many in zoos.