Crane Trust bison herd helping to mitigate effects of climate change – Grand Island Independent


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For millions of years, bison have adapted to diverse climatic ecosystems, such as short and tall grass prairies. Their herding and grazing presence also helped to diversify the landscape with different types of vegetation and wildlife.
Range manager John Wiese said with Crane Trust’s genetically pure bison herd, they are “reintroducing those isolated herds to one another, so that we are producing offspring that are very genetically diverse.”
The Great Plains has always been a land of climate extremes. The current drought is no exception. Since September 2021, Grand Island has received less than 18 inches of precipitation. The Platte River is running dry.
But helping to mitigate the effects of the ongoing drought on the more than 12,000 acres land managed by the Crane Trust in Wood River is an ancient denizen of the Great Plains — bison.
Josh Wiese, Crane Trust’s range manager, manages the more than 12,000 acres of land as well as the Crane Trust’s bison herd.
Wiese wrote the bison management plan as part of his master’s degree project. That was in 2015 when the Crane Trust began its bison program.
What makes the bison herd unique is its genetic diversity.
Prior to the European settlement of North America, the continent was home to millions of bison. Within 400 years, the bison numbers fell to several hundred animals.
Wiese said the remaining bison were put in the hands of federal officials. The animals were isolated genetically.
“These herds didn’t get a chance to breed between each other,” he said.
Wiese said with the Crane Trust’s genetically pure bison herd, they are “reintroducing those isolated herds to one another, so that we are producing offspring that are very genetically diverse.”
“That diversity equates to being able to better handle different health issues and to be able to adapt to climate changes,” he said.
During the millions of years the bison survived and evolved on the North American continent, especially the Great Plains. They adapted to survive harsh climatic conditions, from extreme heat and cold to droughts, floods and fires.
And for millions of years, the bison have adapted to diverse climatic ecosystems, such as short and tall grass prairies. Their herding and grazing presence also helped to diversify the landscape with different types of vegetation and wildlife.
It’s those ecological changes to the landscape that Wiese said the Crane Trust hopes to bring to its land management plan.
“The idea is that putting the bison on the landscape was going to create some different habitat types,” he said.
For example, Wiese said, bison like rolling in the dirt and creating a “big bowl on the ground.”
“Creating little patches like that creates a whole other habitat type on the landscape that different species might need to survive,” he said. “We might find different plants or different animals using those patches at a different degree.”
For example, Wiese said snakes might need an area in which they can rest and absorb energy from the sun before they start their day or different plant species might have been waiting in the soil for that historic type of wallowing disturbance to emerge.
“We’ve seen some of that already,” he said.
And, Wiese said, as their bison research and other bison research is showing, incorporating bison back to the landscape is good for biodiversity.
Along with the many benefits that bison provide, the Crane Trust land management program is bringing critical habitat to the many migrating birds that travel through the area each year.
Since the 1980s, the Crane Trust’s mission has been to provide critical habitat to endangered migratory species, such as the whooping crane. Also each year, Crane Trust land hosts the more than 600,000 sandhill cranes and other birds that migrate through the area in the spring.
“Different birds have a mosaic of different types of habitat which they prefer,” Wiese said. “One bird species is going to prefer a little shrubby area. One bird species might prefer some woodland area. One bird species might prefer short grass or tall grass or an intermediate grass level. So really, with these bison being able to create different patches of different landscapes, we can serve a wider breadth of diversity of those migratory birds.”
And with climate change impacting the Great Plains, Wiese said the Crane Trust’s “bison advantage” will be an important tool to manage the effects of climate change on this important habitat.
Through the efforts of Wiese and others at the Crane Trust, they are increasing the biological diversity of the land they manage.
With the help of their bison herd and other management practices, Wiese said, there are more than 540 plant species there. With increased plant diversity comes hundreds of pollinators and animal and bird species.
“We have 113 bison, including 46 calves,” he said.
There are plans to grow the bison herd and expand their grazing range. Wiese said they would like to work cooperatively with neighboring landowners in expanding the herd.
He encourages the public to visit the Crane Trust to view the bison and enjoy the diverse ecoscape the property provides. It can be viewed along the more than 10 miles of trails there.
“We like people to come out and see the bison and see how they’re changing the land,” he said.
For more information, visit www.cranetrust.org.
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For millions of years, bison have adapted to diverse climatic ecosystems, such as short and tall grass prairies. Their herding and grazing presence also helped to diversify the landscape with different types of vegetation and wildlife.
Range manager John Wiese said with Crane Trust’s genetically pure bison herd, they are “reintroducing those isolated herds to one another, so that we are producing offspring that are very genetically diverse.”
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