Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2001


Published in Great Plains Research 11:1 (Spring 2001). Copyright © 2001 Center for Great Plains Studies.


Prior to their demise in the late 1800s, bison coexisted with and helped sustain a diverse and spectacular assemblage of animals and plant communities on the Great Plains. Bison, in concert with fire, exerted strong control on the structure of the vegetation by grazing, trampling, and wallowing. The changes in the vegetation induced changes in many animal populations. These impacts, coupled with the bison's role as the major converter of grass to meat, so greatly affected other species that some have called bison a "keystone" species in the Great Plains ecosystem. The black-tailed prairie dog, dependent on bison grazing over a large part of the Great Plains, amplified the keystone influence of bison by its own grazing and burrowing activities and its utility as prey. Although modern bison-growing practices usually will preclude restoration of the large predators and scavengers that once were a part of the great faunal spectacle, other species can return, often even on small acreages. Maintenance of a habitat mosaic is the key to restoring some of the original biodiversity lost to the historic pursuit of single species pastoralism.