Why Bison Restoration? Cultural, Ecological, and Climate Benefits

Why Bison Restoration? Cultural, Ecological, and Climate Benefits

By Gabby Eaton, Legislative Intern

Millions of bison once roamed the Great Plains, (APR 2021), but settlers decimated bison herds throughout the west in the early 1800s, impacting Native American Tribes who were reliant on this resource. Efforts to restore bison herds are underway, which is essential for cultural and ecological reasons and also has potential to contribute to efforts to fight climate change.

According to the InterTribal Buffalo Council, the decimation of bison herds began in the early 1800s when white settlers realized that Indian tribes were reliant on buffalo (ITBC, 2019). These settlers killed “over 60 million buffalo” and “left only a few thousand buffalo” remaining. Doing so made it significantly harder for native people to remain on the landscape, as their lives were intertwined with these herds that provided a subsistence way of living and spiritual importance (ITBC, 2019). 

And, in case you were wondering, the terms, “bison” and “buffalo” can be used interchangeably, with tribes often referring to them as “buffalo” (ITBC, 2019). 

After this decimation of the herds, efforts to restore the bison have brought the population numbers back up to around 360,000 bison that remain today, either in conservation herds or herds raised for agricultural purposes (APR, 2021). However, only around 1%, or 31,000 of these bison are a part of conservation herds and it is important to note that the species is considered to be “ecologically extinct” because so few remain wild on the landscape (APR, 2021). 

Before their removal, bison were an integral part of the landscape in more ways than one. They provided a sustainable food source for Native Americans and also helped sequester carbon in the grassland soils on which they roamed. They remain an important part of the culture of tribes and because of this, tribes and wildlife managers are working together to promote efforts to restore bison to their natural ranges. These restoration efforts are significant for bison’s connection to climate and for their connection to the tribes. 

Bison have been on the landscape for around 2 million years, with the oldest fossils being found in Asia (Ogden, 2017). However, “bison first arrived in the Americas somewhere between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago” (Ogden, 2017). Since they have been around for so long as a native species adapted to grassland ecosystems, their connection to the processes in grassland ecosystems is very important. For instance, they help promote the regeneration of grasses, and seed dispersal, processes that can increase the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil (Irfan, 2018). Their excrement fertilizes the soil, and their hooves stir up the soil and help disperse seeds, which can stimulate new growth throughout the landscape (Labbe, 2020). 

This all may seem contrary to what you may have known about grazing animals impacting the climate. Typically we hear about their methane emissions, which is a greenhouse gas that causes considerable climate impacts (Irfan, 2018). However, when bison are not subjected to conventional agricultural techniques that “denude the soil of vital grasses” therefore reducing its carbon uptake and eroding the soil, they could actually help ecosystems function better, leading to higher rates of productivity and more carbon sequestered (Irfan, 2018). Bison are in turn impacted by the effects that climate change has on the natural world. Specific impacts include reduced weight due to a loss in the nutritional value of wild grasses as an impact of a warmer climate, which highlights the importance of tackling issues like climate change in conjunction with bison restoration (Craine, 2013).

Grassland ecosystems are in danger and are “particularly vulnerable to the effects of human induced climate change” (Wright, 2017). This is important because grasslands can hold a significant amount of carbon and if we preserved just 10% of the remaining grasslands in the US, it would be the “equivalent to taking 2.5 million passenger vehicles off the road” (Labbe, 2020). If bison were restored to this landscape it could heighten the ability of the soil to hold even more carbon dioxide, acting as a natural carbon storage facility (Wright, 2018). It is important to note however, that holistic grazing methods with bison are still being researched by scientists and there is some disagreement on its’ ability to act as a potential climate solution (Irfan, 2018; Wright, 2017). Nevertheless, it is interesting to think that restoring bison to the landscape could have the potential effect of helping solve the climate crisis. 

 Efforts to restore bison in Montana are being led by tribes like the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who are a part of a coalition of tribes within the Intertribal Buffalo Council, working toward restoring healthy populations of bison to tribal lands. “Returning the buffalo to Tribal lands will help heal the land, the animal, and the spirit of the Indian people” (ITBC, 2019). Other organizations are working to restore bison in Montana as well. The American Prairie Reserve has established a herd on their land and has donated bison to conservation and tribal herds throughout the US. The Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition is advocating to restore wild bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge near Glasgow Montana, with hopes to establish a herd of “at least 1000” bison on federal public land and private land. Several other organizations are working to restore bison on public and/or tribal lands (e.g., National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife) or advocating for expanded habitat and protection of bison in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Natural Resources Defense Council, pushing habitat expansion and management changes, and Buffalo Field Campaign, working in the field to defend the existing Yellowstone area buffalo herds and to prevent their slaughter and harassment by state and federal government agencies).   

You may have heard about Montana House Bills 302 and 318 in the Montana Legislature and their obstructive impacts on bison restoration on public, tribal, and private lands in the state. Hopefully, now you also understand why bison restoration and our ability to pursue it in the state is so important. For more information on the bills check out Montana Sierra Club’s fact sheets on HB 318 and HB 302 and please consider giving Governor Gianforte a call, asking him to veto these bills.



American Prairie Reserve (APR). (2021, March 30). Bison restoration. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.americanprairie.org/project/bison-restoration

Craine, J. (2018, October 03). Climate change and the future of bison. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/06/24/climate-change-bison-cattle-grassland/

Irfan, U. (2018, February 02). What bison in South Dakota can teach us about fighting climate change. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/2/2/16934232/holistic-grazing-bison-south-dakota-climate-change

ITBC. (2019). Our history. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://itbcbuffalonation.org/who-we-are/history/

Labbe, N. (2020, July 21). Beef and bison can help in fight against climate change. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/stories-in-mn-nd-sd/beef-bison-help-fight-climate-change/

Ogden, L. (2017, April 07). Earth - bison had survived for 2 million years until humans arrived. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170406-bison-had-survived-for-2-million-years-until-humans-arrived

Wright, P. (2017). Bison: The Latest in Carbon Capture Tech. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://features.weather.com/us-climate-change/south-dakota/