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It appears that the only way to replicate the ecological symbiosis that free-roaming herds once had with grasslands is to put bison, elk, pronghorn, and deer back on large territories, along with their appropriate predators (including humans, hunting on a year-round basis), and let the reestablish coexistence with the grasses and the myriad other forms of life there. With bison and their companion grazers, it seems almost certain that the best management is no management. A few large ranches, following the Ted Turner operation’s lead, will be able to implement this policy, but for the most part the task will fall to our public lands. Full implementation will probably require a century and will test to the utmost our temptation to imagine that, with our limited understanding, we can do things as well as nature.
Bison affect other features of grasslands besides grass, particularly streamside vegetation. A large herd of bison visiting a water hole or riverbank tramples it severely. In times past, however, when bison had access to unbounded expanses of land, their visits were intermittent, a fact that mitigated their impacts. Certainly bison do not display the predilection for sticking close to water that cattle have, perhaps because of their origins in wet southern Asia. Sharman Apt Russell says it well:
The effect of cattle on riparian areas is well documented. Unlike wild ungulates, cows tend to stay near water, to wallow in it, to lounge on the stream banks, and to trample the same ground over and over. As they lounge, they eat–grasses, tree shoots, whatever they find. On the John Day River, they eat, steadily, the willow and red-osier dogwood than act to slow the force of floods and protect the banks. They eat the grass that shields the soil from sun and wind, keeping soil temperatures low and reducing evaporation. They eat the sedges that are filtering out sediment, cleaning the water, and building up banks at the same time. When this kind of vegetation is overgrazed, the look of a stream changes drastically. Trees such as willow, aspen, alder, and cottonwood disappear as mature trees die out and the young shoots are consumed. In areas with deep alluvial soil, the stream begins to downcut, creating deep channels that result in a lowered water table.
Bison, on the other hand, tend to drink and then move on–far and fast. Bison do wallow, both in dry depressions to dust their coats and in wet depressions to cover themselves with a layer of mud for protection from insects. Nevertheless, they wallow mostly on high, level areas, and their wallowing produces bare, depressed areas that promote species diversity because they become tiny wetlands after rains.
Bison consume a greater range of plants than do the cattle that have replaced them. They respond flexibly to forage quality and abundance. Moreover, bison seem to digest what they eat more efficiently than cattle, perhaps because of different digestive-tract bacteria and protozoa; they can certainly achieve protein and energy intake equal or superior to those of cattle.