5 Reasons Why Bison are Better Than Cows (Ecologically)


Some time ago I wrote a piece related to the subject of cows/bison and how they can actually benefit the grasslands when managed in a more adaptive management approach. The general idea of the subject was that if you move cows or any other grazing animal in a manner that matches or reflects a herd of grazing bison on the grasslands, you will see an astonishing change in how the animals interact with an environment (negative or positive). Based on the evidence/research I have been exposed to, I am a firm believer that there is a method or two of ranching that seems to have greater positive ecological for an area that the current common method of selective grazing.

I have seen ranch land that is extremely overgrazed and mismanaged. It is a sad sight to see when you drive past a property and the cows have eaten the grass to look as fresh or as lean as a turf grass that you would see freshly mowed on the golf course with little diversity. Overgrazing is an issue as it removes diversity from an area and only leaves the species that the cows don’t want to eat. In my area you often see fields full of prickly pear or yucca plants due to this phenomenon. This is extremely problematic as it shows that the way a lot of our livestock producers are managing their land is incorrect and needs some degree of adaptation or correction to prevent further land/ecosystem degradation.

I have been looking into different ways that people are beginning to raise livestock via multi-paddock rotational grazing and adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP grazing). The goal of these two methods is to mimic the impact of the bison the best that cows can in a managed system. I have heard great things from ranchers who have switched to this method, but are often interested in seeing the limitations of these ranching styles in comparison to just allowing bison to selectively graze. I wonder if bison are innately better for an environment or if they require a high number of animals to compete for food in an area to motivate animals to eat the lesser desired forage/plant species.  

Regardless of my questions regarding grazing density of an area, it should be known that there are things that bison have/do that impact the ecology of our grasslands. These animals coevolved with the biome and it would make sense that they would have a symbiotic relationship. There are things that bison do naturally that help the native grassland ecosystem. I plan on pointing out these features and explain to you why it is significant when comparing “traditional” ranching with cows in North America.

1. Drought Tolerant

One important feature about bison is that since they have adapted to the harsh environment of the American grasslands they are more familiar with drought. Bison require less water than cows in hotter, drier temperatures. This is due to their tortoise/camel –like ability to take up water through the vegetation that they consume. If the forage is not ideal in aiding in proper moisture, the bison will move to better forage with higher water content.

This incentivizes growing more drought resistant, native plants/habitat when ranching for bison as their deeper roots allow for better access to water throughout the season. Without proper forage and habitat bison will leave an area in search of something better as their survival does depend on it.  Bison can survive moderate droughts under ideal circumstances.

In comparison, cows are not native to North America. This may seem like common sense, but I had to say it. Cows are from Eurasia where the environment isn’t as extreme typically. Drought can significantly impact the cattle in regards to overall mass/body composition and milk production. Supposedly, there are some drought tolerant types of cattle. The USDA has an article on the subject if you are interested. I wonder how these heritage gene cows compare to that of a once native bison on the plains.   

2. Adapted to Work with Fire

Since bison are already adapted to life on the range here in North America, it would make plenty of sense that bison aren’t too worried about fire and typically avoid any imminent threat like any sensible animal. Bison seem to have a mutual relationship with fire. The disturbance creates a rich, green, and easy to navigate area that is full of nutrition from the newly available nutrients made available from the burn. The bison use this to their advantage and Native Americans were soon able to catch onto this observation in the past. Natives eventually utilized prescribed burning to help control/predict bison populations within an area as well as a list of other things. Bison are not the only part of an ecosystem that benefits from fire on a landscape. Without the presence of bison on a landscape in combination with fire activity you begin to observe less and less diversity on the plains.  

3. Disperse Seeds

One way that bison help give back to the land after a fire is by dispersing seeds quickly after a fire. This promotes diversity and prevents weedy or more invasive plants from establishing in the area prior to the introduction of more common plants of the prairie.

Bison are able to do all this by catching seeds in their thick, scratchy coat and dispersing them throughout the prairie as they forage and browse. While moving they also disturb soil a bit and drop seeds. This method of seed dispersal promotes native biodiversity in a pre-invasive world. I often wonder what the impacts of bison are in regards to invasive seed dispersal in the Modern world.

 If you just look at the diet of a bison you would know that bison forage on grass and other forbs/legumes found in an area. Given this observation, it would seem logical to assume that there would be a lot of seed dispersal happening occurring via the digestion and manure sides of things.  Seeds can be dispersed through digestion as many sees are indigestible to certain animals. This method of dispersal is often beneficial for the viability of offspring despite the harsh conditions of internal digestion as the seeds are dispersed and given a heap of manure/fertilizer to feed them after they have used all of the nutrition/energy allocated in the plant’s seed coat.

The removal of the bison from the American grassland greatly reduced the dispersion of various species of native plants, decreasing their abundance. It was only until recently that scientists began understanding the significance and value of bison to an area/ecosystem.

Do note that domestic cows are still known to disperse seed (both invasive and native), though it is the natural behavior patterns/ preferences that show the differences between the two species and the efficiency of their dispersal methods.

4. Create Microclimates

Beyond the bison’s important role of seed dispersal, they are also known for creating microclimates. Microclimates are defined similarly to what the name suggests. They are areas such as small depressions or areas under high amounts of shade/sun that have differing temperature or climate than the average surrounding area. Bison are able to create these climates by creating buffalo wallows. There is some degree of erosion associated with the creation of these wallows, but some species are dispersed by the creation of these areas which may rely on a certain microclimate to do well or germinate.

This is a smaller, less known feature that bison typically are associated with. I am sure that cows act in a similar manner, but to what scale I do not know. I would really like to see more studies associated within this phenomenon and the potential for rare prairie species diversity.

5. Adapted to Native Climate

Based on how much bison seem to do for the grassland it may seem that they were a gift to the world in respect to keeping the prairie intact prior to European settlement. These animals coevolved with the prairie over thousands of years, they are considered a keystone species (An organism that helps shape an ecosystem), indicating their importance in maintaining and preserving the prairie over time. The bison did not need any special housing, medicine, or supplemental salt blocks/hay to support their body on pure grass and forbs.

 During times of extreme weather activity in the present or future it may be advantageous to normalize the raising of bison instead of cows for livestock due to their natural ability to rely on less water and be able to suffice themselves on various grasses/ forbs even during the worst of droughts or coldest winters. This is why bison wool is so warm and sought after.  


Bison are better suited for the American grasslands. Bison were here before humans ever stepped foot in the Americas. It is what was intended to still be here had greed and the continuation of privatization not overtaken the early American settlers. Although I doubt we will see any bison milk in stores as we commonly see with various dairy products, I do believe that bison meat and bison meat products will soon take up a larger portion of the beef section than what we currently see today in 2024.

I know that there has been very little change in the types of meat available on the shelf in various large scale supermarkets, but I am sure no one expected the commercial success of Beyond Burger (and similar vegan/plant based products) 20 or even 10 years ago. I know that a lot of what is sold at the store is due to the demands of the consumer, but maybe in the future it will be reversed. Bison will be the only thing able to survive the potentially harsh conditions leaving many ranchers forced to either give up ranching or to make the jump to bison ranching? Who knows, I hope to eventually work with these animals and see how they work with a restored prairie landscape in the future.

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