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What bison in South Dakota can teach us about fighting climate change

One rancher is deploying a controversial holistic grazing strategy to restore the land and capture carbon dioxide.


The full version of this article can be read here Holistic Grazing Bison South Dakota Climate Change


Rising temperatures may shrink cattle herds in South Dakota, threatening the state’s economy

Average temperatures in South Dakota have already shot up by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and the number of triple-digit temperature days is poised to double by 2050, Wright reports. The concern is that these rising temperatures will lead to more severe droughts, which in turn will harm the livestock this state relies on heavily for its economy.

South Dakota has about five beef cattle for every one of its 865,000 residents, and they’re worth almost $2.8 billion to the state’s economy.

Using bison as a proxy for cattle, one study found that every degree Celsius of average temperature rise would cost the livestock industry an additional $1 billion as the market weight of cattle declines.

Projections show that under a business as usual trajectory for greenhouse gas emissions, the region will see an average temperature rise by 4.65 degrees Fahrenheit by 2065, which will take a big bite out of the state’s cattle industry.

Bison are being harnessed as carbon engineers

While greenhouse gases from transportation and power plants (rightfully) dominate the discussions about the causes of climate change, agriculture, and, more fundamentally, the way we use land, also produces a lot of emissions.

Conventional pasture grazing, with animals pent up in one area, can denude the soil of vital grasses, reducing its carbon dioxide uptake and leading to soil erosion. However, the 777 Bison Ranch is home to just under 2,000 bison that graze, trample, and defecate as they travel through 35 pastures in search of fodder, enriching and aerating the soil while allowing native grasses to regenerate.

Regardless of whether or not bison can go hoof-to-hoof with carbon dioxide scrubbers on power plants as a climate change mitigation strategy, it’s worth remembering that fighting climate change is more than a matter of hardware.

And while holistic grazing remains a fringe practice in US agriculture, farms are increasingly deploying technologies to limit emissions, like trapping methane from livestock waste and using anaerobic digesters to produce electricity, thereby reducing their total greenhouse gas emissions. We’re going to need all of these tactics and more to decarbonize as fast as we possibly can.

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