The University of Arizona

Bison Versus Cattle: Are They Ecologically Synonymous?

Michel T. Kohl, Paul R. Krausman, Kyran Kunkel, David M. Williams


Historically, the plains bison (Bison bison Linnaeus) was the most numerous and influential grazer on the Great Plains. Today 500 000 bison occupy North America among more than 100 000 000 cattle. In an attempt to restore their historical ecological role, bison are translocated onto landscapes previously manipulated for cattle use through water and fence development. We hypothesized that bison would use these landscapes similarly to cattle, thus maintaining homogenous grazing and reducing the restoration potential of bison at a landscape scale. We quantified differences between bison populations at different locations and spatial scales (American Prairie Reserve, Malta, Montana, USA, and Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan, Canada, 2010–2011) and bison and cattle at similar locations and spatial scales using behavioral observations, movement analyses, and resource selection functions. Bison and cattle differed in all behaviors (grazing, standing, bedded, moving, other); however, landscape attributes resulted in behavior differences within species. Cattle spent a higher proportion of time grazing (45–49%) than bison (26–28%) and increased time at water. Bison moved at a 50–99% faster rate than cattle, and first passage time movement analyses identified selection of bison foraging patches (11 690 ha) larger than cattle foraging patches (48–615 ha). Similar to cattle, bison avoided most vegetation communities in relation to riparian communities and selected areas closer to water. Cattle selected for high plant biomass, whereas bison selected for intermediate plant biomass. This study has implications when bison and cattle are used to meet prairie restoration objectives. For bison, large landscapes that include variation in topography and vegetation communities are required. Furthermore, limiting manmade water sources may facilitate bison grazing patterns that more closely approximate historical bison use. For livestock, reduced movement and increased time spent grazing encourage grazing practices that increase heterogeneous grazing at a pasture scale.

Key Words: behavior, first-passage time, grazing, heterogeneity, resource selection, water

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