Reintroduction of native bison is bringing “lost crops” back to life

Many native crops across the US that were once integral to the diets of Indigenous communities disappeared when bison herds were nearly hunted to the brink of extinction by Europeans. Without the herds there to help their seeds, these crops all but vanished.

Fortunately, as bison herds are reintroduced to prairie lands, like the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma, many of these long lost crops are making a comeback. The 40,000-acre Tallgrass preserve is home to about 2,500 bison today and researchers from Washington University in St. Louis are finding successful propagation in the animals’ wake after years of failed seed collection and planting attempts. 

The researchers followed signs of grazing and trampling to search for sprouts of “lost crops” like little barley (Hordeum pusillum) and maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana). They found seeds thriving in a way they had never been able to simulate in a garden. 

Bison are what researcher Natalie Mueller calls “co-creators.” Their turning, rooting, and grazing of the land coupled with migration help give rise to greater diversity and more agricultural opportunities. This, coupled with indigenous practices like controlled burns, helped keep plant populations thriving and regenerating.

The bison’s return to their natural habitat is, fortunately, reviving these plants and giving researchers more of an opportunity to study them. They are also helping once again bring diversity to these prairies.

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