Rebuilding the great plains
Bison return to restored grasslands
Wanuskewin heritage park in Saskatchewan, Canada and officials are toasting a new arrival: the first wild bison calf here for more than a century. The fluffy orange newborn with big engaging eyes and bearded jowl renewed hopes that wild bison could once again roam this part of the North American plains.
Months earlier, eleven bison including four pregnant females were released into the park in an ambitious plan to rewild the plains by restoring natural grasslands.
Once a dominant habitat over much of North America, grasslands are now one of the most endangered biomes in the world. By introducing pure-bred bison back to former agricultural land, conservationists hope to restore native grasses and create habitat for an animal which was all but extinct in the late 1800s.
Some of Canada’s reintroduced bison were descended from the population of wild bison that survived over the US border in Yellowstone National Park.
I got to see wild bison for myself during a visit to Yellowstone, America’s first and largest national park, where I learned how tens of millions of bison on the Great Plains have since given way to cattle and then to corn.
In Yellowstone, the air is infused with the most wonderful scent of pine. The landscape was painted with fantastic mountains and forests, big sky and cool breeze. The park is massive, covering nearly 3,500 square miles.
Whilst there, I saw the magical sight of hundreds of wild bison moving in straggly lines, converging on a favoured watering spot. There were rusty coloured calves beside brunette adults. They were grazing, drinking and rolling playfully in the dust.
On foot, I inadvertently got close to a lone bison sat hunched in the shade of the afternoon. With woolly head framed by formidable horns, she sat motionless but for a tail swishing like rope against her leathery hide, sending a dust plume with every swipe.
It put me in mind of how things were up to the late 1800s when 30-50 million bison roamed the Great Plains of America. They weighed in total about the same as the entire human population of North America today. Always on the move, these vast herds were sustained by nothing more than rain, sunshine and grass. They were perhaps the most potent example of grazing animals living harmoniously with their environment, of the power of pasture.
Few wild bison roam freely on the plains these days. The ones I saw in Yellowstone were grazing in pasture clearings surrounded by mountains and trees. An impressive sight, yes, but a pale shadow of what there used to be. The park itself is surrounded by farmland, these natural wanderers confined to the sanctuary like refugees. If they leave, they’re shot. If their numbers swell beyond a few thousand, they are rounded up and culled.
Much of the Great Plains today has been ploughed up for growing crops, the animals separated from the land and confined to feedlots.
On former bison grazing land in Nebraska, I remember asking a farmer what this vast GM prairie of corn was all about: ‘Feeding the world’, he said; yet most of the corn was destined to feed cattle and cars.
I was struck by the irony that, like the bison, many cattle too no longer have the freedom to roam; instead, are confined to feedlots for ‘battery’ beef.
‘Battery Beef’ in Nebraska | Credit: Philip J Lymbery
I remember in Nebraska seeing a thousand cattle standing motionless in muddy paddocks, not a blade of grass in sight. The stench of excrement was overpowering. Full grown cattle and tiny calves were standing in the fierce Nebraskan summer sun with no shade, desperately trying to lie in each other’s shadow.
Whichever way you look at it, industrial agriculture – be it of animals or crops (the two are inextricably linked) – sparks off a cascade of devastating cruelty.
Farm animals like cattle and chickens are removed from the land into crowded sheds or feedlots. Their feed is grown in vast crop prairies, doused in artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides. At the expense of pretty much all life but the crop.
What’s happening with bison in Canada’s parklands is deeply encouraging, not least because it represents official recognition that returning grazing animals to the ecosystem has wider benefits.
Restoring farmland to a place where nature thrives also relies on ensuring farmed animals can experience the joy of life. By returning them to the land as part of overall ecosystems.
Making them part of living landscapes where nature and food production coexist. For a decent future for all, our food choices are important: choosing to eat more plants, much less meat, and ensuring any we do eat is pasture-fed, free range or organic.
By creating a fusion between food, farming and nature in this way, everyone benefits.
Please use this link https://www.ciwf.org.uk/get-involved/ to learn about the ways in which you can help.