Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bison restoring grasslands

Bison turn back the clock on a patch of prairie
A baby boom hits a herd in a remote Saskatchewan national park, an area that hasn't felt bison hooves in more than 120 years.

The Globe and Mail: 'When they were released they were kind of like schoolkids,' said Adrian Sturch, manager of resource conservation at [Grasslands National Park]. 'They all kind of hung together in one group. Now, their herd dynamics are starting to take place.'

The bulls group together in winter. The cow-calf herd split in two. The animals have started exploring their range. They have also discovered buffalo wallows, large pockmarks on the landscape, that hadn't been used since the 1800s... The landscape is changing in other ways and so is the wildlife. Officials hope endangered and threatened species will one day thrive.

Grass is being grazed in lengths ranging from barely picked through to golf-course groomed greens. Songbirds are lining their nests with shed bison fur, and ideal material for protecting fledglings from the cold and rain. The chicken-like sharp-tailed grouse has been dusting itself in buffalo wallows and using short green lawns as leks, or mating areas. Ideally, the endangered greater sage-grouse, known for its elaborate courtship rituals, will follow suit. There's also hope the new landscape will be hospitable to struggling birds, including the Sprague's pipit, long-billed curlew and burrowing owl.

This summer, university students will study how the bison have affected songbirds in the park. Remote sensing is being used to assess grazing. Radio collars are tracking where the bison spend their time.

The herd is still too small to be considered viable, according to experts, and Parks Canada acknowledges more research needs to be done. Still, officials are overjoyed with how the bison -- and the prairie -- are adapting. 'The thing we're witnessing here is genetically driven, deeply ingrained in their psyche and in the landscape,' [Wes] Olson said. 'It's remarkable.'