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A Bison Adventure

First Feeding #1

One of the best Pleistocene Rewilding experiences I have had so far is caring for an orphaned bison calf. I named this calf Achelous, after the mythical Greek bull that Hercules fought in one of his seven labors.  The calf came from a small herd of bison belonging to a local land trust. Unfortunately, the mother had to be euthanized soon after Achelous was born due to a prolapsed uterus.

It was the initial hope of the bison caretakers that the calf would be adopted by one of the other mothers in the herd that had given birth that year. However, because Achelous had been born so late in the calving season, the other three calves in the herd had almost been completely weaned so the cows were really not producing milk. Therefore, we needed to capture him in order to make sure that Achelous did not die from dehydration and starvation in the corner of the pasture.

What many people do not realized is that, unlike domesticated cattle, bison have an extremely solidified herd or family culture. This forms due to the powerful familial bond between them, which develops over generations, if herd managers allow this to happen naturally. The various members of the herd also have parts to play.  The dominant male bison is the protector, the grandmothers are the babysitters, and so on.

Bull bison can often weigh over 2,000 pounds and, as I mentioned, fiercely protect their herd. Therefore, it is often prudent to not walk around in the same pasture with these behemoths, blindly searching for a 45-pound calf in the high grass. The safer option was to use vehicles. We used a jeep to shepherd the herd to the south end of the pasture and away from where the bison calf was hiding.

Four of us were charged with finding the calf and capturing it.  We rode in the back of a pickup truck through the tall grass at the north end of the pasture until the calf stood up as he heard the truck approaching.  At this point we needed to get out of the truck to try to corner the calf against the pasture fence.  But we were concerned about walking too far from the truck because if we frightened the calf enough to make it grunt in alarm, the herd would come rushing back to protect it.

We tried to corner and grab the calf several times but the newborn was able to outrun even me, who was a sprinter for my high-school track team. The extreme agility and speed the calf possessed at two days old can be attributed to millions of years of evolution encoded in its DNA that would have allowed it to outrun American Lions, Giant Bone Crushing Dogs, Short Faced Bears, and maybe even American Cheetahs.

But as I was saying, the last time we tried to capture the calf that day I actually got my hands on it and I tried to grip its furry coat.  I was surprised that there was not as much fur as it appeared and the calf slipped away with a grunt of alarm.  The herd immediately reacted and ran back toward the fleeing calf.  The jeep desperately tried to turn the herd back as we ran for the safety of the pickup truck.  The jeep was able to stop the herd facing off against the big bulls but in a surprise move three cows broke free from the herd ran around the jeep and surrounded the calf.  The bulls stayed to protect the cows with calves.  The cows that escorted the motherless calf back to the herd were not mothers themselves. The cows that had given birth that year had remained with the main herd for protection.

As I watched the three cows successfully walk the calf around the now useless jeep I felt a little chill creep up my spine.  The herd had implemented a perfect strategic maneuver to accomplish its goal to rescue Achelous without endangering its other calves.  It was a smart move.  I watched the results of millions of years of natural selection out on the savage American great plains, where some of the biggest and fiercest of Pleistocene carnivores had hunted bison.  Of course, an innate understanding of herd strategic maneuvers would be a critical part of their evolutionary imperative.

Because the calf was with the herd, we decided to let it be until the morning to see if a mother would adopt him. The next morning, the calf was discovered away from the herd, in the last spot he had seen mother alive. This time we were able to capture it quickly. It was transported to a barn with a pen where it would be kept for the next three months until it was weaned. The local land trust asked for someone to care for the bison.  I enthusiastically volunteered, not knowing what I was getting myself into.

#2 First Feeding

Bison are by no means a domesticated animal. When frightened or angry, they can be quite strong for their size. They can head-butt you in the knees or more painful areas, or strike at your knees with a lighting fast, highly accurate kick delivered from the back leg. This kick can be accurate in almost any direction and at a full run without missing a step.

For the first few days, the calf simply abhorred me. When I approached it with a cattle milk replacer, Achelous would rush at me, head lowered in the most aggressive way. The only way to feed him initially was to straddle him, and for the first few days it took two strong people to hold the four day old. By the end of the feeding session the milk would be plastered around his head and jaw and all over me. Luckily, it didn’t take Achelous long to associate me with food. He now approaches me rather than the opposite.

What an amazing Pleistocene evolutionary success!  Out of the depths of time, across a vast crucible of hard land, through hundreds of thousands of floods, storms, droughts and fires, through the fangs and claws of all kinds of predators across the eons, has arisen an evolutionary masterpiece.  Huge, fast, tough, smart and weaponized 360 degrees, it is my honor to care for Achelous, this magnum opus of creation.  Have you ever touched a masterpiece?  Not a painting made by a person in a month, but a being created by a planet over millennia?  It’s incredibly awesome.

This is only the beginning of what I can only assume will be one of my first and most cherished Pleistocene experience. Keep a look out for more blogs concerning Pleistocene Rewilding on my website and I’ll let you know how Achelous is getting along too by posting more videos almost daily.  Thanks for reading (and watching) and let me hear from you!

Leif

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Some Press on Pleistocene Rewilding!

Dreaming on the Wild Side - The Daily Herald - pt. 1

Dreaming on the Wild Side – The Daily Herald – pt. 1

Dreaming on the Wild Side - The Daily Herald - pt. 2

Dreaming on the Wild Side – The Daily Herald – pt. 2

White Carbon

White Carbon

Sergey Zimov, created the first Pleistocene Park, located in Siberia, in 1988. This park is a large scale attempt to restore the lost Quaternary ecosystem and one of his primary aims is to study the effects that large concentrations of megafauna have on tundra and grassland ecosystems. As you might guess, the research has important implications for climate change as well. Through Zimov’s work, two important discoveries about the effects of large scale herbivore activity on the permafrost have come to light: productivity increases and temperatures decrease. It’s not surprising that large herbivores increase the productivity of the tundra by converting the mossy tundra into productive grassland. They accomplish this by tilling the soil with their hooves and horns, and then fertilizing it with their manure and urine, while simultaneously spreading the grassland seeds. However, it was unexpected that the activity of these herbivores would also decrease the temperature of the permafrost – and this has important implications for climate change.

Permafrost and Carbon

Permafrost is a complex ecosystem, which is gaining increasing amounts of attention from researchers due to its importance as a vast carbon sink, especially in the midst of climate change. To put it bluntly, the frozen soil of the permafrost contains copious amounts of carbon. Consider that the combined area of the permafrost, which is located primarily in Russia, Alaska, Canada, and the Himalayas, contains approximately two times the amount of carbon already present in the atmosphere. That’s a serious carbon sink. Consider also, methane, which is produced as a result of microbial activity in the permafrost. As the permafrost warms, microbial activity increases and so does the methane production. The amount of methane present in the permafrost is 20 to 25 times more potent than CO2 in warming the atmosphere. Now you have an idea of the importance of the permafrost and why it is vitally important that CO2 and methane remain in the permafrost.

Pleistocene Rewilding and Decreased Permafrost Temperatures

The same herbivore activity that increases productivity of the permafrost, also decreases the permafrost temperature and therefore aids in keeping greenhouse gases (GHGs) locked away. During the winter months, the megafauna push the snow around as they forage for food, causing it to melt faster. You would think this would increase the temperature of the permafrost when it fact, the opposite is true. Here’s how it appears to work.

When Zimov’s team of researchers measured the ambient air temperature at -40OF, permafrost that had snow cover intact was 23OF. However, the permafrost which had the snow churned up and melted and was then exposed to the winter winds was a staggering –22OF. That’s a 45 OF difference!

It would seem that the snow would act as an insulator for the cold ground and keep it from warming. In fact, the snow actually seems to act as a highly effective insulator for those busy microbes as they decompose organic matter, allowing them to warm up and increase their activity.

While my vision of Pleistocene Rewilding lies predominantly in the Great Plains, the concept could also be applied worldwide, particularly in the Arctic regions. These areas generally contain very few people, and the ones that already live there would benefit greatly in similar ways as at lower latitudes, economically, sociologically, culturally, etc. Pleistocene Rewilding in these regions would greatly increase tourism, which would rejuvenate rural and isolated communities due to increased economic activity. The native communities would be welcome to hunt the massive herds that would populate the plains. This would also increase food security in areas where food is difficult to obtain.

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When organizations and corporations see how valuable it is to keep these greenhouse gases in the permafrost and new protocols concerning permafrost carbon sequestration are developed, this funding source will benefit Pleistocene Rewilding projects. Therefore, increasing the ability for these endeavors to be self-sustaining.

There are also many ecological benefits other than carbon and methane sequestration. If the Pleistocene Rewilding project is performed on a large enough scale, it could influence the microclimate. This would greatly benefit the local caribou herds, which are relentlessly pursued by warbler flies. I would explain the horrifying process which the flies inflict upon the caribou, but I would not want to disgust you. If the herds are large enough, they will make the microclimate more frigid, thereby decreasing the amount of flies. This will boost caribou population numbers as well as the predators that hunt them. Once the caribou bounce back, the traditional Inuit lifestyles that depend on them would become more resilient as well.

White Carbon is the term I’ve coined for the process of keeping GHGs like carbon and methane sequestered in the permafrost. Pleistocene Rewilding is an effective method for helping to achieve this goal.

A herd of caribou bulls seeks the cooling relief of large snow patches where warble flies and mosquitoes seem to be less bothersome.

Tall Grass Bison

Hey!  How do you get livestock to naturally stick together and graze in a tight group?  Well the presence of predators is an important factor as I’ve pointed out already in this blog.  But there is another factor that works even in the absence of predators as I recently learned about on a tour Bob Jackson’s Tall Grass Bison Ranch.  In these photos you can see me on the tour.  Bob Jackson on the far left.

Tall Grass Bison Bob Jackson

Bob has been raising the bison on his ranch as family groups for generations, I mean bison generations here.  That’s right, these bison have been together for generations and they are now a tight family unit.  When you go to Tall Grass Bison, or if you would ever have the chance to see truly unmanaged bison moving in the remotest wilds of Yellowstone, you would see them moving in tight family groups.  Managed bison or cattle don’t move this way because they have been indiscriminately harvested with no considerations of family groups.  With this kind of harvesting developing family groups are always getting broken up.  The herd becomes a lose herd of unrelated individuals that have no strong connections and don’t really care about being close together.

Managment Intensive Grazing WRC

Wild herds that have been together for hundreds of generations care deeply about family and stay tightly together.  Even when they end up in massive migration it’s a migration of tight family groups not a migration of individuals.  Ranchers and cattle grazers who are trying to get the most out of their pastures try to mimic this wild behavior by moving cows through a system of management intensive grazing.  They use small paddocks and temporary wire fencing to keep the cows close together and they move them anywhere from twice a day to once every few days.  This is a lot of work, a lot of fence, and a lot of watering infrastructure to achieve the kind of grazing efficiency that these animals would do naturally if we managed them as family groups instead of individuals.  Then when it comes to harvesting, you don’t break up family groups.  Instead you take some family groups and leave other family groups to breed.  Once these family groups get big enough smaller family groups start splitting off.  These are the groups you can harvest.

Managment Intensive Grazing

Another important thing that Bob does is grazing his bison on tall grass prairie instead of improved pasture.  This ensures that the bison have a highly diverse menu of things to eat and he has discovered that older bison tend to eat a different mix of plants than younger bison.  In fact, he has discovered that it takes generations for bison to learn about what is best to eat out on a prairie, something they can’t do if the family groups are always being broken up.  So Bob’s bison don’t all eat the same things at the same time, reducing their impact.  They stay close together and only impact the prairie in one small part at a time, leaving the rest of the prairie to recover.  And the prairie is more resilient.  The plants of the prairie are very diverse, some do better in some situations and some do better in other situations.  That means that no matter what the situation there is probably something out there doing well, unlike a normal brome pasture.  Bison in family groups grazing on prairie is a highly efficient and resilient system that could be profitable if ranchers could figure out a way to stop trying to carve up the world with their own ownership and cows.  It must be a shared wild herd grazing a shared prairie in order to reach maximum efficiency, maximum resilience, and lowest cost.

Tall Grass Bison Visit

Oh, by the way.  Here’s another little benefit.  When I visited Tall Grass Bison, Bob fed us bison burgers.  My burger was from an older bull, still in his prime.  That night I couldn’t sleep, for hours and hours.  I never have trouble sleeping.  As it turns out that older bull was packed with nutrition, unlike your typical a 16 month old beef.  Why?  Well that bison bull was feeding on a highly diverse prairie and he had years and years of time to accumulate that nutrition in his muscles.  16 month old beef has not had the highly diverse diet and hasn’t had the time to accumulate nutrition in his muscles.  It’s no wonder that Bob has more customers for his bison meat than he can handle and it’s no wonder that so many of them are serious athletes, paying top dollar for meat that lets them do what the rest of us only dream of.

 Well, you know what I’m dreaming of!  Pleistocene Rewilding!

1st Post

Surviving Megadroughts, In Style

Did any of you see that CNN report a few weeks ago with Ben Brumfield or the Ted Talks video on desertification? He was covering the news from NASA about a recently completed study that warns of ‘megadroughts’ that could last for decades in the American west if the climate continues to change. These droughts could start in the second half of this century and be much worse than the American West has seen in over 1,000 years, according to tree rings.

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That’s only 35 years away. If you are a father or a mother of young children now, and you hope that they can have a good life living and working on your family ranch in the American West, how will you manage a 10 year drought, let alone a 20 or 30 year drought? They will be 40 or so when the first drought could hit. You will only be in your sixties. Either way a drought like this will soon feel like it lasts forever.

That’s only 35 years away. If you are a father or a mother of young children now, and you hope that they can have a good life living and working on your family ranch in the American West, how will you manage a 10 year drought, let alone a 20 or 30 year drought? They will be 40 or so when the first drought could hit. You will only be in your sixties. Either way a drought like this will soon feel like it lasts forever.

How are your aquifers doing? They probably aren’t doing very well already. How is your snow pack doing? How are your glaciers holding up? Are you starting to lose faith in snowmelt? What do your cattle eat when you don’t get rain? You’ve got to truck in their hay don’t you? Get’s kind of expensive huh?

The only way ranching in the American West will survive droughts like these, or even much milder droughts is to drop the fences and let the animals follow the rains. And you don’t want cattle. Bison are better suited to arid pasture. And you don’t want pasture that is all one kind of grass. A diverse prairie is your best bet to ensure that something to eat is almost always growing no matter the weather. And you don’t want bison, let alone cattle, that are all the same age. Livestock of the same age eat all the same things, and wipes it out. And you don’t want all one species of grazer for the same reason, different animals eat different things, which helps ensure that you don’t have grazers that are wiping out plant species by overgrazing. And you don’t want herds of individual animals that spread out evenly and impact the entire area. You want wild herds that tend to stay closer together, impacting pasture strongly and then letting it rest for long periods with thick growth. You don’t want overgrazed land, which has no water retention capacity. And you don’t want a land free of predators, because predators make herds stay even closer together, like the management intensive grazing that ranchers try to create with fences and watering systems and labor, all at great expense. Here is an idea. Use wild herds. Eliminate the expense and bother. Besides wild herds can fight off or escape the predators. In fact, don’t just ranch to raise beef with its low margin, which other countries can probably grow at a cheaper price than you can. Grow big game, specialty meats, which will draw tourism. Save the American West, your small town, and create jobs for your kids and grand kids in the Wild West. Let them live the wild life on the frontier helping others to enjoy what you have always enjoyed, at a great profit.Featured image