The largest land-dwelling mammal in America, bison aid in balancing and maintaining a healthy ecosystem and help to create habitat for many species, including plants and birds. Their hooves aerate the soil, dispersing seeds and helping plants to grow.

Widespread restoration of bison to Northern Great Plains Tribal lands can help support food sovereignty and aid in the restoration of the prairie ecosystem, according to a new study, a South Dakota State University press release stated. Impacts on agricultural systems due to climate change may also be reduced by the presence of bison.

The study, “The Potential of Bison Restoration as an Ecological Approach to Future Tribal Food Sovereignty on the Northern Great Plains,” was published last month in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

“The buffalo is important to Indian communities, to our people culturally and ecologically to our lands,” said the president of the InterTribal Buffalo Council and Blackfeet buffalo manager Ervin Carlson, the press release said. “We know bringing them back will not only heal our people but also help us with the changes we see on our grasslands due to drought.”

Once, 30 to 60 million bison traveled across the Great Plains and were a main source of hides and meat, driving the economy of many Plains Indian Tribes. In an attempt to destroy the Tribal members’ livelihood, mass hunting of bison was encouraged by the U.S. government. As bison numbers dwindled in the late 19th century, the Tribes lost their main source of food and were driven onto reservations.

“The herds today are small and isolated. Today there are about 350K Plains bison in production herds, 30K in public herds and about 20K bison in tribal herds,” Hila Shamon, lead author of the study and a landscape ecologist and mammalogist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, told EcoWatch in an email.

“Bison are a social species and rely on their herd to survive; an evolutionary strategy to maximize fitness. They group together for predator vigilance, collective foraging and learning,” Shamon said.

“Bison’s movements drove nutrient cycles, altered vegetation structure and fire regimes that in turn supported other prairie species. They are considered ‘ecosystem engineers’,” Shamon told EcoWatch.

Read the full article about bison restoration by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes at EcoWatch .