There is something fatally wrong with the way humans have gone about protecting our home over the last several decades. This flawed approach is reflected in the distressing, exponential decline in the diversity of plants and animals that defines our notions of life on planet Earth, featuring prominently in our shared creation stories. More than 1 million species, or one out of eight, are threatened with extinction.
Consider the breakdown in biomass of mammals by weight: livestock now comprise a 60% share; humans comprise 36%; and, wildlife make up only 4%. The reason wildlife populations have plummeted by 70% since 1970 is because the exponential growth in human population has been accompanied by exponential growth in domestic cattle, which have crowded out wildlife habitat, including rainforests and grasslands, grazing over a quarter of the planets arable land, and requiring another third for feed crops.
This week and for the next two weeks, governments from most of the world’s nations are meeting in Montreal at “COP15” ~ the U.N. Biodiversity Conference ~ to adopt a plan to reverse this crisis.
You might recall that “COP27” just concluded in Egypt, and may even be feeling some “COP-fatigue.” This planet-saving never seems to end!
But make no mistake, the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are not separate existential threats.
“The temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement will not be achieved without protecting every intact ecosystem, restoring what has already been depleted, and allowing nature and Nature-based Solutions to do their part.” IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Open Letter.
That is not how most people think of the climate crisis, though, is it?
These twin-crises, viewed holistically, represent the living planet’s demand that we humans reconsider and re-set our relationship with the natural world. And as the U.N. clearly recognizes, we can turn to Indigenous knowledge and wisdom for answers to the question “how, then, shall we live?” That’s based on an undeniable binary: "Indigenous peoples and local communities protect 80% of existing biodiversity, often by defending it with their lives,” according to Isaac Rojas, a program coordinator for Friends of the Earth International. “Conserving biodiversity goes along with taking [Indigenous cultures] and their human and land tenure rights seriously."
On the eve of the Biodiversity Conference of Parties in Montreal, the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, framed the issue as one of paradigm change:
“As far as biodiversity is concerned, we are at war with nature. We need to make peace with nature. Because nature is what sustains everything on Earth … the science is unequivocal.”
"Our planet is in crisis," added Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Mrema emphasized that a global agreement on biodiversity is "crucial to ensure that the future of humankind on planet Earth is sustained”.
Wildlife Conservation or Ecosystem Restoration?
According to the leading science on reversing biodiversity trends, which is informing the UN’s approach, the key to our survival will be supporting and restoring “large mammal assemblages” in 30% of the planet’s ecosystems by 2030, and 50% by 2050. As Vynne et al. (2022) show:
Assemblages of large mammal species play a disproportionate role in the structure and composition of natural habitats. Loss of these assemblages destabilizes natural systems, while their recovery can restore ecological integrity.
Humans have significantly altered 75% of the terrestrial ecosystems, so attaining the first 30% of the 30/30 goal is a matter of setting aside and shoring up protections for existing intact ecosystems (terrestrial and marine).
The bridge from 2030 to 2050, by contrast, involves restoring degraded ecosystems where humans have constrained large mammal assemblages in favor of livestock and monocultural croplands. Native grasslands represent the largest potential for achieving the kind of restoration needed to draw CO2 down from the atmosphere into the soil horizon, along with mangroves and kelp forests.
The “large mammal assemblage” identified by biodiversity science for the U.S. doing its part, one of 20 worldwide that could cumulatively solve our crisis, is none other than Yellowstone’s wild buffalo (Table 1). In a timely demonstration of its ignorance, Montana’s Department of Livestock asserted just last week that there is no science to support increasing Yellowstone’s wild herds of bison!
Bison are “ecosystem engineers,” whose interactions with other plants and animals profoundly influence the structure and function of their habitats and the wildlife therein. As Yellowstone’s lead biologist puts it, based on a decade-long study, “bison are not just moving to find the best food; they are creating the best food by how they move” across the land.
The delegates at COP15 are set to embark on the final stage of negotiations on a new global biodiversity agreement. Raising the ambition needed to achieve its goals will be possible only by recognizing that species and ecosystem approaches are compatible. In today’s world, landscape-level conservation alone is not sufficient to halt extinctions. We need to scale our conservation efforts up to ecosystem-wide strategies, and supporting Yellowstone’s buffalo in the entire Yellowstone Ecosystem, rather than just the 15% that comprises Yellowstone National Park, is a no-brainer.
At a time when the world gathers to solve the biodiversity crisis, let’s not forget the power of species to bring us together. Charismatic megafauna like the American Buffalo have boundless appeal and cultural significance not just for the Tribes, but for billions of people worldwide. A focus on recovering wild bison in Yellowstone, in the C.M. Russell Wildlife Preserve, and establishing a “buffalo commons” from Canada to Mexico, as envisioned in the Buffalo Treaty, can help to rally the ambition needed to halt extinctions, restore biodiversity, reverse the climate crisis, and fundamentally reshape our relationship with nature. As the Buffalo Treaty states:
It is our collective intention to recognize BUFFALO as a wild free-ranging animal and as an important part of the ecological system; to provide a safe space and environment across our historic homelands, on both sides of the United States and the Canadian border, so together WE can have our brother, the BUFFALO, lead us in nurturing our land, plants and other animals to once again realize THE BUFFALO WAYS for our future generations.
According to Vynne et al.:
“The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration provides a global policy framework to integrate a rewilding component into habitat recovery. This refinement requires that the resurgence of large mammal populations becomes an explicit target.”
As the authors of “REWILDING: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery” (2022) put it, we now have “the opportunity to be the first generation in human history to leave nature in a better place than we found it.” As staunch allies of both Tribes and Buffalo, the Buffalo Field Campaign is determined to make good on that promise.