Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 21, Issue 6, pp 1441–1455 | Cite as

Can bison play a role in conserving habitat for endangered sandhills species in Canada?

  • Thomas A. Fox
  • Chris H. Hugenholtz
  • Darren Bender
  • Cormack C. Gates
Original Paper


Relative to their cultivated surroundings, sandhills of the Canadian prairies represent intact, heterogeneous ecosystems. These extensive tracts of sand dunes and native prairie are biodiversity hotspots, which act as refugia for a variety of specialized wildlife species. However, due to changes in climate and suppression of natural disturbance, the dunes have experienced drastic rates of stabilization over the past 200 years, such that the proportion of open sand in the region is currently less than 1%. This continuing trend is resulting in a gradual loss of sparsely vegetated, sandy habitat for many uncommon, specialist species, including a number that are considered to be at risk of extirpation or extinction by COSEWIC (Canada’s list agency). Without management to conserve active sandhill habitat the future long-term survival of rare and imperilled dune-dependent plants and animals is questionable. In this article we propose that the re-introduction of disturbance to southern Canadian prairie sandhills, specifically sandhill use by bison, might be effective in restoring and sustaining actively-eroding sandhill habitat to support some threatened and endangered species. We outline several lines of evidence (geological, geomorphological, archaeological, and historical accounts) indicating bison occupied sandhills and actively modified these ecosystems until European settlement of the prairies. We argue that bison were attracted to sandhills for a number of reasons, and that in great numbers they had considerable influence on sandhills ecosystem functions. Behaviours such as grazing, trailing, wallowing, horning, and trampling created a patchwork mosaic of disturbance effects. We hypothesize that it may be beneficial to reintroduce bison to sandhills ecosystems in the Canadian prairies to restore biodiversity at all levels.


Bison Conservation Disturbance Endangered species Sandhill ecosystems 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas A. Fox
    • 1
  • Chris H. Hugenholtz
    • 1
    • 2
  • Darren Bender
    • 3
  • Cormack C. Gates
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of LethbridgeLethbridgeCanada
  2. 2.Faculty of Environmental Design, University of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  3. 3.Department of GeographyUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada

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