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Posts Tagged ‘healthy ecosystem’

Photo: Philip Brown/Unsplash.
Bison are being brought back in the US West.

Recently on Twitter, @LakotaMan1 shared a photo of a rare white buffalo, sacred to some indigenous tribes. Its location was being kept secret from the modern version of those hunters who nearly wiped out bison in the West. I was excited to see Lakota Man’s picture as I remember the white buffalo in the old television show Rin Tin Tin — and even the words to the song about it.

Janet Marinelli writes at YaleEnvironment360 that large mammals like the bison are being deliberately brought back around the world to create healthier ecosystems.

“For thousands of years, bison herds thundered freely throughout the Chihuahuan Desert on both sides of what is now the U.S.-Mexico border. In November 2009, after three frantic months of chasing down the required permits, Rurik List and Nélida Barajas watched as 23 bison from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota arrived by tractor-trailer at the Santa Teresa international cattle crossing in southeastern New Mexico.

“The animals, 20 females and three males, galloped through the dusty stockyards, across the border, and into the state of Chihuahua. A permanent herd of wild bison had been missing from Mexico for more than 150 years. ‘It’s hard to describe the feeling,’ says Barajas. ‘We were bringing the bison back home.’

“Two weeks later, 140 miles southwest of the border crossing, the bison were released from a quarantine corral at El Uno ranch, a 46,000-acre oasis of recovering grasslands in a Chihuahuan Desert landscape severely degraded by the overgrazing of domestic livestock.

“List, a conservation biologist at Mexico’s National University who had drafted the bison restoration plan for northern Mexico, and Barajas, a Nature Conservancy scientist and the ranch manager at the time, were joined by 700 government officials and local ranchers and farmers and their families to witness the event. When the gates opened, a bull led the herd into an iconic Western tableau of big sky and luminous sweeps of golden desert grasses backed by the rugged peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

“Bison, which can reach six and a half feet at the shoulder and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, are critical to the continued recovery of the desert grasslands. Unlike cattle, which graze grasses to the root, bison roam while they graze, leaving enough of each plant to enable it to continue to grow. They also wallow, sculpting depressions in the ground where water can accumulate and sustain healthy stands of grass.

In the past two or three decades, research has underscored the importance of large mammals like bison as ecosystem engineers, shaping and maintaining natural processes and sequestering large amounts of carbon.

“But the world’s large herbivores and predators continue to suffer alarming losses. Researchers estimate that almost two-thirds of the world’s large carnivores are threatened with extinction. Fewer than 6 percent of 730 ecoregions worldwide studied by scientists still have the extensive, intact large-mammal communities that were dominant 500 years ago.

“After several decades of research refining the understanding of the importance of large mammals to healthy ecosystems, scientists are now proposing a concrete plan about which herbivores and predators to reintroduce and where, and how this might best be done, given the challenges.

“In a paper published earlier this year, a global team of researchers led by the U.N. Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the U.S. nonprofit organization RESOLVE proposed a detailed strategy to reverse the global decline of large mammals and the ecoregions they once inhabited. …

“According to the study, published in the journal Ecography, reintroducing just 20 large mammals — 13 herbivore and seven predator species — can help biodiversity bounce back around the world and tackle climate change in the process. Among these candidates for rewilding are brown bears, bison, wild horses, jaguars, reindeer, Eurasian beavers, elk, moose, wolverines, tigers, and hippopotamuses.

“The researchers also identify 30 priority ecoregions on five continents that meet key criteria: They lack no more than one to three of the large herbivores and predators historically present, provide extensive habitat, and can feasibly be restored in the coming decade. These areas range from the flooded grasslands of South Sudan and the dry puna of the Central Andes to the xeric grasslands and shrublands of the Chihuahuan Desert, where intact communities of large mammals could be restored in the next five to 10 years, the scientists say. …

“Restoring intact communities of large mammals such as these won’t be easy. Throughout history people have feared large animals, particularly predators, justifying politically expedient measures to minimize their numbers — or even eliminate them altogether. Oregon State University researchers Christopher Wolf and William J. Ripple calculate that 64 percent of the world’s remaining large carnivores are at risk of extinction and 80 percent are declining. According to Jens-Christian Svenning, a professor of ecology at Denmark’s Aarhus University and co-author of the Ecography paper, the state of the world’s large herbivore species is almost as dire, with 59 percent of the 74 species of large herbivore species weighing 220 pounds or more threatened with extinction.

“The body of scientific literature documenting the importance of top predators and herbivores has revealed how their loss destabilizes and even unravels ecosystems. In the absence of predators, for example, populations of herbivores often explode. In the eastern U.S., deer were once kept in check by wolves and mountain lions. Today, booming deer populations are preventing keystone species such as oaks from reproducing and have literally devoured the understory habitat of hooded warblers and other birds.

“Research has also demonstrated that healthy animal populations play an important role in sequestering carbon. Yale School of the Environment ecologist Oswald J. Schmitz notes that even if we could completely stop all our emissions, switch to renewables, and stop deforestation, it wouldn’t keep global temperature rise under the tipping point of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

” ‘We have to draw out a significant amount of CO2 and store it on the planet to stabilize the temperature,’ he says. ‘Animals can help us get to this goal a lot faster.’ Schmitz and colleagues in the Global Rewilding Alliance calculate that rewilding, restoring, and conserving endangered and threatened animals could increase carbon uptake by 1.5 to 3 times or more around the world.”

More at E360, here.

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