Bison-Carbon-ate

“The Incredible Shrinking Bison” [1] discussed how the increase of CO2 emissions has contributed to the rise of the Great Plains’ average temperature, and how the resulting warming trend has affected the bison. The bison, on the other hand, as a key species to the survival of the plains, can also have an indirect, mitigating effect on the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

The predominate conversation around atmospheric CO2 has centered on the elimination of CO2 production.  There is, however, another conversation underway—one involving the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide is known as carbon sequestration.  It is one method of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and consists of two types: geologic and biologic.  Geologic carbon sequestration involves the storing of carbon dioxide in underground geologic formations.  The CO2 is usually pressurized until it becomes a liquid, and then it is injected into porous rock formations in geologic basins [2]. 

Biologic carbon sequestration refers to storage of atmospheric carbon in vegetation, soils, woody products, and aquatic environments. For example, by encouraging the growth of plants—particularly larger plants like trees—advocates of biologic sequestration hope to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Within biologic carbon sequestration there are several means by which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.  These include peatland, wetland, forestry, agriculture, carbon farming, deep soil, and ocean-related. But of all the terrestrial (as opposed to aquatic) methods, the forests receive the lion’s share of the world’s attention.  Forgotten are the grasslands which also harbor much of the wetlands. For North America the grasslands of the Great Plains and prairies, which occupy approximately one-third of the continent, are critical to carbon sequestration.  And key to the grasslands’ vitality is the North American Bison [3].

Grasslands quickly process carbon from the atmosphere and store this carbon in the root structures, which extend 8 to 15 feet into the ground, which can store 22.5 million tons of carbon. These roots can hold the carbon for decades, and process 1.7 million tons of carbon per acre to the soil annually.  This storage accumulates over time and moves carbon from the atmosphere to the ground continuously creating massive carbon deposits over the course of centuries. Prairies have the ability to store as much carbon below the ground as forests can store above the ground. When carbon is stored below ground it remains locked there and unable to enter the atmosphere.  Compared to forests, grasslands are more reliable.  In times of drought and forest fires, the carbon stored in the wood and leaves returns to the atmosphere.  During a grass fire, however, carbon is not released since it is stored in the roots underground [4].

School of Environmental Sustainability-Colorado State University [5]

Though the Great Plains and prairies occupy a vast swath of the North American continent, this does not translate into a great CO2 scrubber.  The conversion of this ecosystem into cropland has significantly reduced the ability of this region to sequester carbon [6]. Compared to native or natural vegetation, cropland soils are depleted in soil organic carbon (SOC).  When soil is converted from its native state the SOC content in the soil is reduced by approximately 30 to 40% [7].  Further, the crops replacing the native grasses are annuals with comparatively shallow root structures which are less effective in storing carbon and holding soil.  With less carbon stored and moved to soil, and increased possibility of soil loss, the effectiveness of the plains and prairies in atmospheric CO2 removal is significantly decreased.  

Short of returning the croplands back to the natural state of the region, there are agricultural methods aimed at sequestering atmospheric carbon into the soil and in crop roots, wood and leaves.  These methods are collectively referred to as carbon farming.  Besides removing CO2 from the atmosphere, increasing the soil’s carbon content—whether by reverting to the natural condition, or by carbon farming—aids plant growth, increases soil organic matter which improves agricultural yield, improves soil water retention capacity and reduces fertilizer use which is a source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) [8].

Carbon farming or recovering the native perennials, however, is not the complete answer.  The ecosystems of the plains and prairies were dependent on the large herds of bison moving over the grasslands.  The grazing, trampling and recovery patterns associated with the bison were key in building soil, maintaining biological diversity and deepening plant roots, which are crucial elements in permanent carbon sequestration [9].  The bison not only provided nutrients for plant life, but tilled the soil with their hooves, working up and trampling dung into the soil, enabling plant-life to take hold, flourish and consequently become a significant carbon sink.

School of Environmental Sustainability-Colorado State University [10]

Though sequestration, as used here, is a technical term, the concept is quite familiar. When we hear the word “sequester,” the common association is with juries as in jury trials.  When a jury is sequestered, it is removed and kept apart from contact with the public.  The purpose is to ensure undue influence on, or tampering with, the deliberations of the jury, and ensure a just verdict.  As the jurors file out of the courtroom at the end of the defense’s and prosecution’s final presentations, if the judge has ordered they be sequestered, we see the tangible form of a removal to protect the integrity of the trial by jury justice system considered critical to our legal well-being.  The notion of using an act of removal in the protection of our well-being is only part of the meaning of sequestration.  What is being removed and where it is being kept are equally important.  Originally, “to sequester” meant “…to put in the hands of a trustee…” [11]. In regard to carbon sequestration the trustee is the earth itself, or more specifically, in the context of the bison and the grasslands of North America, it is the Great Plains ecosystem.  When we think of ecosystems, we tend to think of the land, the flora and the fauna.  Often missing in our consideration is the air above.  The bison—a  keystone species in regard to the flora and fauna and the land—is a crucial element of the trustee,  instrumental in the process of CO2 removal and the mitigation of the warming trend plaguing the Great Plains.

End Notes:

[1] Schuette, Keith. “The Incredible Shrinking Bison.” November 17, 2020.Bison Witness. Bisonwitness.com

[2] “What is Carbon Sequestration?” USGS.gov. What is carbon sequestration? (usgs.gov). Retrieved 4/24/21

[3] Schuette. “Dung Cake and Feces Pie: Yum!” April 26, 2019. Bison Witness.  Bisonwitness.com

[4] Davidson, William, “The Great Plains: America’s Carbon Vault” (2016). Op-Eds from ENSC230 Energy and the Environment: Economics and Policies. 73. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/ageconugensc/73

[5] Lavelle, Jocelyn. Soil carbon sequestration to combat climate change—a real solution or just hype? – Sustainability (colostate.edu). Colorado State University—School of Environmental Sustainability. Retrieved 4/30/21.

[6] 42% of the Great Plains has been converted to cropland, leaving 53% intact.  The remaining 5% holds water or has been converted to human use.  Understanding Grassland Loss in the Northern Great Plains. 2018. World Wildlife Organization.

[7] Poeplau, Christopher; Don, Axel (February 1, 2015). “Carbon sequestration in agricultural soils via cultivation of cover crops – A meta-analysis”. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 200 (Supplement C): 33–41. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2014.10.024.

[8] “Carbon Farming | Carbon Cycle Institute”. http://www.carboncycle.org. Also, “Carbon Farming: Hope for a Hot Planet – Modern Farmer”. Modern Farmer. 2016-03-25.  And Velasquez-Manoff, Moises (2018-04-18). “Can Dirt Save the Earth?. The New York Times. Retrieved 4/30/21.

[9] Wright, Pam. Bison: The Latest in Carbon Capture Tech.12/24/2017/by Regeneration International. Retrieved 4/30/21.

[10] Lavelle.

[11] Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. 2001. Random House.

The Incredible Shrinking Bison

Toward the end of the 19th century the bison faced extinction by extermination.  Today, even after more than a hundred years of restoration efforts, the plains bison is faced with another threat of extinction—the accelerated warming of the Great Plains.

The Plains Bison (Photograph by Kailyn Komro, West Bend, WI.  (kekomrophotos@gmail.com)

Even before the immense public attention on climate change, there has been great scientific interest in climate processes and extinction events in the Earth’s natural history.    Evaluation of fossil evidence has shown an inverse correlation between warming trends and body size and mass of large mammals.  As temperatures rise, body size shrinks over large geological time scales. Along with this negative correlation a consequent, positive correlation has been established between shrinking body size and extinctions [1].  

The warming trend, which began at the end of the last Ice Age, has been accelerating in recent decades. [2].  Since the beginning of the 21st century the northern Great Plains’ average summer temperature increased by 0.8˚C while for the southern Great Plains the mean summer temperature rose by 0.4˚C with winters rising by 0.25˚C for both the southern and northern Great Plains [3]. Consequently, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Working Group 1 predicts a 4˚C increase in global temperatures by 2100 over the 20th century—a period of 100 years.   This rate of temperature change is much greater than for the Bolling-Allerod period [4]—a warming period 14,700 to 12,500 years ago with a mean temperature 6˚C cooler than that for the 20th century.

The evolutionary history of bison has shown an absolute increase of 4˚C is not unprecedented.  However, the time frame in which the bison has had to adapt needs to be considered. From the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (approx. 14,700 years ago) to the 20th century the earth warmed 6˚C. During the Last Glacial Maximum, bison mass was, on average, approximately 910 kg. (2006 lbs.). The greatest decline in body size of 26% occurred between 12,500 and 9250 years ago. Given a generation time between 3 and 10 years, the change in body size occurred in 325 to 1080 generations, producing an average rate of change of 0.2 to 0.7 kg per generation.   If the current warming trend continues as predicted for the 21st century, bison body mass will likely decline from 665kg (current average body mass) to 357kg.  It is unclear whether bison can adapt their body size to a 4˚C temperature increase within 10 generations [5].

Changes in body size and mass of animals have long been used to indicate large-scale environmental processes over geological time scales, and have become predictors of extinction risk in mammals [6].  In regard to bison B. antiquus and B. occidentalis, these species did go extinct, but through phenotypic [7] and morphologic [8] adaptation to changing climatic conditions, they evolved into what is known today as the North American bison (Bison bison) which has existed throughout the Holocene epoch-the current geological epoch. The importance of body size in dictating extinction proneness is likely due to the fundamental association between size and other key life history traits such as fecundity, longevity, mating system, trophic level (step in a nutritive series, or food chain), dispersal ability and energetic requirements [9].

Bison Size Comparison (from ElkUSA.com)

Fossil bison shrank with global warming probably because large-bodied grazers are disadvantaged both by heat dissipation and by the phenological [10] shifts in plant quality and abundance in warming conditions [11].  Impacts of climate change, then, are two-fold: 1) direct effects of temperature on the animal, demanding energy to compensate for heat, and 2) indirect effects of temperature on the animal’s food supply [12].

Maximum body size of endotherms–an animal that is dependent on or capable of the internal generation of heat; a warm-blooded animal—depends on optimal maintenance for the efficient production of tissues.  This is especially true in seasonal environments when food availability and environmental demands constrain the annual windows for growth.   Optimal maintenance is dependent on thermal loads (amount of heat energy).  High thermal loads increase cost of body maintenance to balance internal and external loads through thermoregulation, which reduces energy for growth.

Thermoregulation is the mechanism by which heat balance is achieved.  It affects the use of energy, water and nutrients such as electrolytes and organic nitrogen which affect resting and foraging behaviors. Thermoregulatory processes usually increase energy use by increasing heart rate and blood flow.  In hot weather thermoregulation increases the flow of body water because water is used for evaporative cooling (e.g., panting, perspiration).  In cold weather thermoregulation generates body heat through such efforts as shivering, increased metabolic heat production, and muscular activity in an effort to conserve core body heat through control of blood flow to the periphery [13].

The negative climate-body size correlation, then, reinforce feedbacks that may increase extinction rates [14].  Both excessive heat (> 40˚C) and excessive cold (< -30˚C) directly increase demands for energy, water and nutrients because thermoregulation outputs increase, whereas indirect effects of rising temperature decrease forage quantity and quality—ultimately affecting the supply of energy, water and nutrients [15].  Smaller body size, then, is more efficient in regulating increased thermal loads due to rising temperatures.

Conceptual model of the direct and indirect effects of elevated ambient temperature on body size of Bison bison from Martin, et. al., 2018.

In regard to food supply, climatic warming tends to exacerbate nutritional stress and reduce weight gain in large mammalian herbivores by reducing plant nutritional quality.  Warming trends have the potential to not only reduce the nutritional quality of plant species, but also by decreasing the relative abundance of nutritionally critical plant species.  For the North American plains bison this is likely to result in an increase protein stress, reducing bison growth and reproduction [16].

Compounding the issue of decreased nutritional quality of grasses, the warming trends have resulted in an increase of droughts in the Great Plains.  The lack of water availability reduces the availability of critical plants necessary for bison growth.  Consequently, droughts cause declines in the number and body size of bison [17].

One of the driving factors in the rising temperatures may be the increasing CO2 concentrations which reduce plant protein concentrations in grasslands [18].  Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been causing Nitrogen to become progressively more limiting to ecosystem productivity.  Nitrogen is a crucial element for many structures and metabolic processes in plants. Plants are required to manufacture the complex molecules by use of minerals from the soil that contain nitrogen such as nitrate ions. Plants too, like animals, need some important macro and micro nutrient elements including nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon to keep them healthy. The wellness of plant parts (leaves, roots, trunks, etc.) depends on the availability of essential nutrients like nitrogen to enhance the plant’s biological processes including growth, absorption, transportation, and excretion [19].

Science has offered information and theories concerning the effect of warming trends on the size and survival of bison.  The question for us is: how do we respond?   The Great Plains are predicted to warm, resulting in longer, hotter summers accompanied by more severe droughts.   The anticipated warming and drying along the Great Plains will shift the distribution and protein efficacy of vegetation types by mid-and-late century, altering the supply of digestible energy and digestible nitrogen to bison, native wildlife and domestic livestock [20].  Bison are very good at adapting to shifts in environmental processes given the rates of change in the past.  But with the acceleration of warming rates, their adaptive ability comes into question.

With decreasing body mass life history traits that are dependent on body mass will also shift. Age of maturity, reproduction rates and growth rates will be reduced.  Preliminary data already indicate a decrease in the life span of female bison, reducing reproductive rates [21].

In response, there are ways to mitigate the observed effects of the climate shifts on bison according to Dr. Jeff Martin— an integrative conservation ecologist.  Prescribed burns to the land to boost available energy and protein in grasses are one example.   More generally work is needed to determine how best to create landscape heterogeneity for bison to select the best available forage [22].

To achieve such a goal, management questions arise.  For instance, bison diet remains poorly understood which limits the ability to determine the plant species most critical, and consequently prohibits a full understanding of the required management of dietary needs.  Plains bison are considered strict grazers.  This implies they primarily consume grasses and grass-like flowering plants—such as sedges—as opposed to browsing on forbs, shrubs or trees (woody species).  Being strict grazers would suggest that climatic warming may reduce bison performance by altering the productivity and nutritional quality of different grass species. However, earlier analyses may have overemphasized the contribution of grasses and underemphasized the amount of herbaceous and woody species in their diet.  Recent studies have suggested that bison utilize eudicot species to some degree.  If eudicot species constitute a critical component of bison diet, then managers will need to take into account the relative abundance of these and their nutritional quality when considering mitigation strategies [23].

Bison have been wonderfully adaptive to environmental and climatic changes over the course of their history. Until recent times, though, they have had great expanses of time to acclimate to new conditions.  The recent accelerated warming trends have placed another hurdle in their evolutionary path—a shortened time frame in which the species has to respond.  It is unclear whether the species will be able to offset the induced biological stress with a shift in body mass in the allotted time. It is highly unlikely the climate shift underway can be halted or reversed.  Mitigation efforts, then, need to focus on land management to provide the requisite forage.  This will, however, require additional studies and the implementation of known effective practices. 

Simply restoring bison numbers is not enough. To ensure the survival of this keystone species, land and vegetation management practices which will mitigate the current climate effects need to be developed.  

End Notes:

[1] Isaac, Joanne L. 22-May-2008. Effects of climate change on life history: Implications for extinction risk in mammals.  Endangered Species Research. Vol. 7:115-123, 2009.

[2] See IPCC-AR5, 2013; USGCRP, 2018.

[3] Martin, Jeff M. Perry S. Barboza. 06-Dec- 2019. Decadal heat and drought drive body size of North American bison (Bison bison) along the Great Plains. Wiley. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.5898. Retrieved 19 Oct 2020.

[4] The transition of from the last Glacial Maximum (12,500 years ago) to the Holocene

[5] Martin, Jeff M., Jim I. Mead., & Perry S. Barboza. 10-Apr-2018. Bison body size and climate change. Wiley.

[6] Isaac.

[7] Pertaining to the appearance of an organism resulting from the interaction of the genotype and the environment—Webster’s

[8] Pertaining to the form and structure of an organism considered as a whole—Webster’s

[9] Isaac

[10] Pertaining to the influence of climate on the recurrence of annual phenomena of animal and plant life—Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. 2001. Random House.

[11] Craine, J. M., Towne, E. G., Joern, A., & Hamilton, R. G. (2009). Consequences of climate variability for the performance of bison in tallgrass prairie. Global Change Biology15(3), 772– 779.  See also

Martin, Jeff M., & Perry S. Barboza. 06-Dec-2019. Decadal heat and drought drive body size of North American bison (Bison bison) along the Great Plains. Wiley.

[12] Martin, Jeff M., Jim I. Mead., & Perry S. Barboza. 10-Apr-2018. Bison body size and climate change. Wiley.

[13] Martin, Jeff M. Perry S. Barboza. 08-Jul-2020. Thermal biology and growth of bison (Bison bison) along the Great Plains: examining four theories of endotherm body size. ESA Journals.

[14] Isaac.

[15] Martin 2019.

[16] Craine, Joseph M. E. Gene Towne, Mary Miller & Noah Fierar. 16-Nov-2015. Climatic warming and the future of bison as grazers. Nature.

[17] Craine, J. M., Nippert, J. B., Elmore, A. J., Skibbe, A. M., Hutchinson, S. L., & Brunsell, N. A. (2012). Timing of climate variability and grassland productivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(9), 3401– 3405. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1118438109. Retrieved 19 Oct 2020. Also Martin, Jeff M., Perry S. Barboza. 06-Dec-2019.

[18] McKauchlan, K.K., Ferguson, C.J., I. E. Ocheltree, T. W. & Craine, J.M. 2010. Thirteen decades of foliar isotopes indicate declining nitrogen availability in central North American grasslands. New Phytol, 187, 1135-1145.

[19] Tajir, Amir. 02-Nov-2016. What’s the function of Nitrogen (N) in plants? Greenway Biotech. https://www.greenwaybiotech.com/blogs/gardening-articles/whats-the-function-of-nitrogen-n-in-plants.  Retrieved 19-Oct-2020.

[20] Martin, 2020.

[21] Martin, et.al., 2019.

[22] Kobilinsky, D. 16-Dec-2019. Droughts and high temperatures are shrinking bison. The Wildlife Society.  See also Jeff Martin’s website  https://bisonjeff.weebly.com/.

[23] Craine, et al., 2015.

A Town of Two Tails: Apologies to Dickens

In the midst of the prairie the taller grass gives way to a small expanse of cropped grass interrupted by numerous dirt mounds. Grazing this neatly trimmed lawn, a herd of buffalo watch our approach unconcerned.  However, looking closely, tiny sentinels raise up on their rear haunches to signal an alarm at our intrusion.  We have just come upon a prairie dog town, the residents of which have seen their best times come and go while their worst of times are upon them. This is the tale of the two most notable tailed-dwellers of the prairie dog town—the prairie dog and the American bison.

Picture from Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

                Like the buffalo the prairie dogs blanketed the Great Plains and the surrounding prairies by the hundreds of millions—with some estimates as high as 5 billion—up into the 20th century. Human intervention, though, has decimated the prairie dogs just as it did to the American bison. The conversion of the rich soil of the prairies to the “true religion” of agriculture tore up and turned over these sculptured underground dwellings.  Those who did not die from the apocalyptic loss of their habitat were hunted down and eradicated by farmers and ranchers who saw these rodents as just another destructive varmint. Prairie dog populations have also declined due to bubonic plague—an indirect human intervention—for which they have no natural immunity.  Sylvatic bacterium, the cause of bubonic plague, was brought to the North American continent by rats which sailed the Atlantic along with the European immigrants. Generally, once infected, an entire colony may be lost.  Another keystone species sacrificed to the god of Manifest Destiny.

                Prairie dogs, a seeming weakling, weigh in at about one-and-a-half pounds. Their numbers, however, more than make up for their small mass providing a significant impact to the prairie economy.  Prairie dogs live in colonies consisting of smaller family units called coteries.  The uniqueness of these rodents lies in their engineering ability to build towns. Not really a town, this unique residential area is a system of burrows engineered and excavated by these furry little rodents.  “Build,” then, is perhaps an incorrect term.  Rather they dig, excavating burrows, constructing complex systems containing sleeping quarters, nurseries, food pantries and even a cemetery of sorts.   A single colony may cover thousands of acres [1].

                Their burrows are wonderfully constructed. The genius lies in how the openings are constructed.  There are actually two openings, one at the front and one in the rear, allowing air flow.  The flow of air is regulated by mounding the excavated dirt at the front entrance.  The mound is usually a few inches—though can be as high as two feet–above the entrance.  The wind across the top of the mound is much faster than at the ground-level of the entrance since the friction caused by the ground and the grass slow the wind.  The faster wind speed at the top of the mound draws stagnant air out of the tunnels thus providing a steady flow of fresh air into the soil-level rear entrance [2]. This lowly ground squirrel utilized the wind as a renewable source long before the thought entered our magnificent brains.

Prairie Dog tunnel-housing also serve as a safe space, providing security against most predators. Too small to withstand many predators the prairie dogs use borrows to evade the horror of being dinner.  The openings, which are too small for most predators—such as foxes, coyotes and wolves—provide a convenient escape route.  However, the openings do not restrict other predators such as the prairie rattle snake or ferrets.  In the case of the prairie rattle snake the prairie dogs do not rely on their burrows for protection.  Instead they “gang-up” on the snake.  Since the snake cannot hide in the cropped grass of the prairie dog town, it is easily spotted and surrounded by the residents of the burrows, quickly turning the tables.  The hunter becomes the hunted.  The prairie dogs fling dirt in the snake’s face, by turning their backs on the predator and kicking up dirt with their hind legs.  Others may dart to the snake’s tail, biting harshly into its tail, and then dart away to escape the answering strike [3].

                Ferrets, on the other hand, are not so easily evaded. Since the ferret can easily enter the burrows—and often will seize occupancy—the prairie dog’s only hope is to out run the ferret.  The Black-Footed Ferret is the natural enemy of prairie dogs, depending almost entirely on prairie dogs for its sustenance, constituting 90% of a ferret’s diet.  With almost a 95% loss of the prairie dog’s habitat, the extermination efforts of ranchers and farmers, and introduction of bubonic plague, the prairie dog has become a threatened species, with the dependent ferret becoming an endangered species [4]. 

Black-footed Ferret

These underground architects are key, then, to the survival of other species, not just as prey, but as providers of affordable housing.  Abandoned or otherwise unoccupied burrows become shelter for prairie rattlers, burrowing owls, toads, jack rabbits, and spiders. And, as in the case of ferrets, the burrows are simply taken over.  With the decline of the prairie dogs, these species have subsequently loss habitat. 

Adept engineers these squirrelly diggers are also wise landscapers.  The prairie dogs transform the landscape around their colonies.  The surrounding grass and other plants are kept closely cropped to the ground, both for eating and for providing a clear view of potential predators.  This well-manicured yard also provides habitat for other species—for instance, birds that live in short-grass environs.

                The mounds of dirt and the cropped grass are also invitations to the largest denizens of the prairie—the bison.  Short grass is a bison’s dream diet.  The closer the blade is to the roots  the higher the percentage of protein and the lower the percentage of cellulose.  By grazing the same ground every day prairie dogs keep the grass short, inviting the bison to a culinary delight.  Closely cropped grass is a necessity to a prairie dog, but it is a treat for buffalo. 

                The bison do not just come for the grass, however.  The mounds of dirt are another attraction.  The excavated soil is perfect to fill their hair, which drives out insects and provides a coolant for hot days.  So the little chimneys of dirt erected in prairie dog town are a venerable day-spa of wallowing for the behemoths of the plains. 

A bison wallowing

                The relationship between prairie dogs and bison is not one-sided, though.  Bison also bring something to the table, or rather, leave something behind.  This other keystone species provide re-purposed grass.  That is, grass processed into fertilizer.   The longer the bison hang around the more they spread their contribution, and the greener the grass becomes.  Buffalo chips are gifts that keep on giving [5].

                Finally, bison make prairie dog towns possible.  Everywhere except in the western short-grass regions, prairie dogs depend on bison grazing to provide short enough grass for the prairie dogs to establish residence there.  This ground squirrel will not live in tall grass since it is less nutritious and hides predators [6].

                 The ending of the tale of the town of two tails is still being written.  The recognition of the prairie dog and the American bison as key to the survival of the Great Plains and the prairies has sparked concerted efforts to restore this excavating rodent and the grass-processing behemoth of these ecosystems.  As prairie dog habitat recovers, a return of other species is seen.  Homes become available for the burrowing owl and the prairie rattler.  Meals become available for the black-footed ferret enabling a retreat from extinction.  Bird populations of short-grass environs recover.  Where the buffalo roam and the prairie dog digs, the Great Plains see a renaissance.     

End Notes:

[1]  Boyce, Andy and Andrew Dreelin. Jul 02, 2020. Ecologists Dig Prairie Dogs and So Should You. Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Nationalzoo.si.edu. Retrieved 22 Aug 2020. https://nationalzoo.si.edu/conservation-ecology-center/news/ecologists-dig-prairie-dogs-and-you-should-too .

[2] Lott, Dale F. 2003. American Bison: A Natural History. University of California Press. Berkeley. 127-128.

[3] Lott. 131.

[4] Anderson, Chamois. Nov. 14, 2019. Ferrets and Prairie Dogs and Bison,  Oh My! Defenders.org. Retrieved 30-Aug-2020. https://defenders.org/blog/2019/11/ferrets-and-prairie-dogs-and-bison-oh-my#:~:text=Bison%20often%20prefer%20foraging%20on%20lands%20occupied%20by,birds%20such%20as%20mountain%20plover%20and%20burrowing%20owl.

[5] Lott. 128. See also the posting dated 26 April 2019, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie: Yum!”  Bisonwitness.com.

[6] Lott. 128.

The Household

Outside of the weather the economy seems to be one of the most discussed topics.  Newscasters and commentators endlessly report and discuss the economic news of the day, which we carry into our thoughts and conversations. We fret about jobs.  We sweat out “the markets.”  We cheer positive economic news.  We groan over the negative.  We wonder about the security of Social Security.  We shake our fists at the national debt—a number most of us cannot fathom. Sitting at our kitchen tables, we pay bills and ponder budgets.  But what lies at the heart of this conversation, which seemingly touches every aspect of our lives?

                Discussions of the economy center around the production and consumption of resources, the wealth of the country, and the consequent effect on our lives.  Such focus renders us too distant from the core question:  what is the heart of the economy? What is the central concern?  The word “economy” originally came from the Greek, meaning household management.  The concern was how to care for the household, which begs a subsequent question:  Who constitutes the household?  Though few would realize it, an unlikely member of all our households is the American Bison.

                Defining who is a member of our household, and how we care for them are burning questions demanding answers.  So, what is our household? Our families and friends have intrinsic value, their worth simply abiding in their persons, since we attach sentimentality to them as persons.  Going beyond the limits of family and friends, however, others tend to take on a more utilitarian value. Their worth assessed more on how they fulfill our needs.  If people or things are not seen as a member of the family, or in our circle of friends, or do not carry any sentimental value, we tend to see them, if we see them at all, in utilitarian terms.  And if we do not perceive them as fulfilling any particular need, we tend to push them out of our consciousness, not even acknowledging they exist or have any particular value.  A member of a household, though, always holds value, both intrinsic and utilitarian, since even as a member of a household, we do fulfill some need for the other members.   The recent awakening to our inter-relatedness and interconnection to the environment has answered the “who.” Animate and inanimate existence upon the earth is interdependent.  All of us humans, along with the flora and the fauna, the air and the water, the soil and the rocks, constitute the household.  The notion of the isolated, rugged individual separated from the environment cannot be logically sustained. Even an isolated human being needs clean air and water, plant and/or animal matter, and a hospitable environment to survive.  

                 Until the late 1800s, the economy of the Great Plains and surrounding prairies was based to a large extent upon the American Bison.  The Native Americans of the region could not imagine their lives without the bison.  The buffalo were everything to them.  Pte (Lakota for buffalo) provided food, shelter, weapons, and even toys. The Pte Oyate (Lakota—buffalo people or nation) were, and still are, a spiritual connection to the creator, providing spiritually, materially, and culturally for the well-being of the plains’ inhabitants.  The bison were key to all life.  “If the buffalo live, everything else will live” [1].  The bison were central to the household of the Plains Indians.  And our recent understanding of the Great Plains ecology bears this out.  We have learned what the Native Americans already knew—the bison have ecological value, being a keystone species to the Great Plains [2]. 

                In today’s world, the bison are still a part of our household, both in intrinsic and utilitarian terms.  Examples of the former include the scientific value of studying bison, the emotional impact of viewing them, and their significance to environmental sustainability.  While for the latter, examples include national park attendance and the commercial value of bison meat production.

                The ecological value, though, has been diminished in favor of promoting beef and certain grains.  Cattle ranching and current farming practice monetizes the Great Plains and the Prairies, converting the land into one condition that maximizes meat and grain production [3].  Cattle and grain do not provide all the ecological values that the bison, which evolved with the Great Plains and the prairies, can fulfill [4].

                The current awareness of the interconnectedness of the flora and fauna within the Great Plains ecology has also proven the scientific value in studying the wild bison.  These studies have provided crucial information regarding predator-prey relationships, mechanisms of disease resistance, social relations of wild bison, etc. [5].  Insights gleaned from these studies aid our understanding of our place in the ecological scheme, and how we ought to act to protect the environment of our home, ensuring our own survival.  One element for the proper maintenance of our home requires an extended range of wild bison not to just increase our understanding, but to guide our preservation efforts [6].

                We also associate an emotional value with the bison.  Millions of people come to Yellowstone each year to take in the scenery but, additionally set their hopes on seeing wild animals; especially the buffalo and the wolves. In a 2016 study of visitors to Yellowstone 83% responded that wildlife viewing was their most important reason for visiting the Park [7]. Perhaps not everyone can verbalize the emotional impact of observing wild bison.  Still, we all do sense something stirring inside of us and feel some sort of connection to nature. The herds of bison inspire, instilling awe.  A feeling that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves finds a home within us.  Somehow we sense that if the buffalo were not here, we would be less than who we are.

                Attaching a monetary value to the emotional value of bison is difficult. So for those of us who want to think in utilitarian terms, and deal in cold, hard facts, here are the numbers worth considering.  First, in regard to recreational value, 4.5 million people visited Yellowstone National Park in 2016, spending $524.3 million, supporting 8,156 jobs.  The cumulative benefits of these recreational and emotional visitations amounted to $680.3 million [8], significantly contributing to the local economy.

An even more utilitarian consideration is the commercial value of bison meat production.  One thousand pounds of buffalo will produce approximately 300 lbs. of low-fat meat, which is healthier than beef.  Sale of bison meat averages $350 million per year with demand outstripping production capabilities, and providing consumers with a nutritional source comparable in protein to beef or chicken but higher in essential nutrients [9].  In these terms bison have greater worth to the household than cattle.

Bison Meat Comparison

                The debates over climate change, renewable energy, national debt, healthcare, and so on are really about one debate: Household management. The underlying issue revolves around who we consider as valued members of the household.  The ecosystem of the Great Plains and surrounding prairies occupy approximately one-third of the United States.  Prudence tells us if we are truly concerned about our well-being, then that ecosystem and its members, particularly the bison as a keystone species, are crucial to our household.  Whether we view the bison as having intrinsic value or utilitarian value, it cannot be denied Pte Oyate is a worthy member to be included in our household management.  The bison nation is, as sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, contributing materially and spiritually to our well-being.

End Notes:

[1] Oglala Lakota Women and Buffalo. Featuring Charlotte Black Elk, Monica Terkildsen, Doris Respects Nothing and Katela Herekasapa. Miho Aida, Producer & Director. Retrieved from YouTube.com 11 Dec. 2019.

[2] See 26 April 2019 Post, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie, Yum!” Bisonwitness.com.

[3] Fuhelendorf, S.D., B. W. Allred and R.G. Hamilton. 2010. Bison as Keystone Herbivores on the Great Plains: Can cattle serve as proxy for evolutionary grazing patterns? American Bison Society Working Paper 4:40pp.

[4] See 26 April 2019 Post, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie, Yum!” and 26 May 2019 Post, “Bison Air Support.” Bisonwitness.com.

[5] Bailey, James A. 2013. 101. American Plains Bison: Rewilding An Icon.  Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT.

[6] See 21 November 2019 Post, “Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 3).  Bisonwitness.com

[7] Visitor Use Study 2016. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/management/visitor-use-study-2016.htm. Retrieved 01 Jan 2020.

[8] Tourism to Yellowstone National Park Creates $680.3 Million in Economic Benefits. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/news/17020.htm. National Park Service. Retrieved 11 Dec. 2019

[9] Current Status https://bisoncentral.com/current-status/ and Bison Perfected by Nature. https://bisoncentral.com/bison-perfected-by-nature/.  National Bison Association.  http:/bisoncentral.com.  Retrieved 01 Jan. 2020.