Bison restoration results in increased bird diversity and greater use by deer in grassland riparian areas

Smithsonian Conservation Research Brief:

Restoration of bison results in greater bird diversity and greater use by deer in riparian areas of grasslands

Temperate grasslands and the species that depend on them are in dire straits. The reintroduction of bison is one of the ways land managers are trying to restore the ecological health of the Great Plains ecosystem. In a study published today in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, Smithsonian ecologists found that reintroducing bison had strong positive effects on biodiversity in wetland or riparian habitats of temperate grasslands. Together with previous Smithsonian research, this study highlights that bison are ideal grazers for restoring bird diversity and ecosystem health in grassland systems.

research paper

Title: “The reintroduction of bison to mixed-grass prairie is associated with increased bird diversity and cervid occupancy in riparian areas”

Published: Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

For quotes:


In grassland ecosystems, grazing by large herbivores is a highly influential process

which affects biodiversity by modifying the plant environment through

consumption. Here, we test whether bison restoration is associated with an increase

bird diversity and cervid occupancy in riparian habitat networks in a temperate region

prairie ecosystem, mixed-grass prairie in north-central Montana, USA.

We used a long time series of remote sensing images to examine changes in

structure of riparian vegetation in stream systems in bison and cattle pastures. We

then assessed how vegetation structure influenced the diversity of bird communities and

detection rate of mammals in these same riparian networks. We found this percentage

covered with woody vegetation, and native grasses and herbaceous plants grew faster

time in bison pastures, and that these changes in vegetation structure were associated

with an increase in bird diversity and deer occupancy. In conclusion, the reintroduction of bison

seems to work as a passive riparian restoration strategy with positive diversity

results for birds and mammals.

Quote from Andy Boyce, lead author and conservation ecologist, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center:

“We’ve known for some time that bison don’t spend as much time in wetlands as cattle do, but what we didn’t understand was how that difference would influence biodiversity. When we looked at areas where bison were reintroduced and compared them to similar areas with cattle, we found that vegetation along small streams changed in a way associated with communities. more diverse bird populations and increased use of these areas by native ungulates such as white-tailed deer. The reintroduction of bison is resulting in healthier and more biodiverse riparian environments, which is great news for tons of other prairie species.


Andy J. Boyce (1), Hila Shamon (1), William J. McShea (1)

(1) Smithsonian Institute for Conservation Biology

About the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Institute for Conservation Biology

The National Zoo and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SNZCBI) leads the Smithsonian’s global effort to save species, better understand ecosystems and train future generations of conservationists. Its two campuses are home to more than 2,000 animals, including some of the world’s most endangered species. Always free, the zoo’s 163-acre park in the heart of Washington, DC features animals representing 360 species and is a popular destination for kids and families. At the Conservation Biology Institute’s 3,200-acre campus in Virginia, animal husbandry and veterinary research on species provide essential data for the management of animals in human care and valuable information for the conservation of wild populations. SNZCBI staff and scientists work in DC, Virginia, and with partners at field sites across the United States and in more than 30 countries to save species and conserve natural habitat. SNZCBI is a long-time accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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