Are bison good for the planet?

For some of you reading this article, the question Are Bison good for the Planet? may seem rhetorical but unfortunately, it is one that some people answer incorrectly.  A common misconception is that bison (and cattle) ranching is actually a part of the larger problem contributing to an increase in greenhouse gasses (GHG) and ultimately global warming.

Why do so many people incorrectly believe that livestock production causes excessive GHG, and even more GHG emissions than the entire transport sector? This is a result of a flawed analysis from 2006 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), called Livestock’s Long Shadow. The report stated that livestock produce 18% of all GHG emissions, which was more than the transportation sector was reported to produce.

Even though the researchers have conceded it was an unfair assessment and have since reduced that figure, many media outlets continue to use this statistic. When UC Davis animal scientist Frank Mitloehner analyzed how the data was gathered, he found significant methodological errors. He showed that a full Life Cycle Analysis was done on the industry, indicating they looked at the feed production, transport of the feed, processing, transport to stores of the cattle industry. All the way from what the animal ate to how it ends up in a consumer’s meal. 

The same assessment was not done in the transportation sector. Only direct emissions from burning fuel were calculated. Many other factors in the transportation industry contribute to GHG production, such as the manufacturing of cars or trucks, how the metal was extracted, the energy required to operate the manufacturing  factories, the energy used to transport and refine the oil, etc. So, while they did a full Life Cycle Analysis on livestock, they did not do the same for the transportation industry.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all livestock only represents 3.9% of GHG emissions. Within the livestock category, beef cattle only represent 2% of total GHG emissions. And the bison industry is a fraction of the size of the cattle industry with bison ranching representing only  x% of Canada's ranchers.

GHG and methane

However, what about bison burps?  Don’t they contribute to the problem of increased GHG, even if it is a relatively small number?  Methane emissions come from anaerobic breakdown of organic materials and as a bi-product of ruminant digestion. Although there are a number contributors to methane production (fossil fuel being a significant one), the common narrative is that the main culprits are grazing animals. Not only is this reductionistic since there are many methane producers, but in reality methane produced via biological processes is part of an important self regenerating biological  system. 

Methane emitted from cattle are part of the natural, or “biogenic” carbon cycle, whereas fossil fuels, a huge methane producer, are not. In the case of bison and cattle, they are transforming existing carbon, in the form of grass and other fibrous materials, into methane as part of their digestive process. Methane is then belched out and after about 10 years, is broken back down into water and carbon dioxide molecules. The CO2 and H2O are cycled back to grow more grass and the cycle continues.  

And don’t forget that prior to the mid-1800s, there were an estimated 30-60 million bison, over 10 million elk, 30 to 40 million Whitetail deer, 10 to 13 million Mule deer, and 35 to 100 million pronghorn and caribou roaming North America. This fact seems to be forgotten when citing the impact of the current “devastating” herbivore numbers. According to a paper published in the Journal of Animal Science, in pre-settlement America, methane emissions were about 84% of current emissions.

Excessive water use

Another common argument against red meat production is that it supposedly uses more than its fair share of water.

However, researchers don’t always agree on how to classify ‘water use,’ and this creates some serious inconsistencies.

Feed production is the most water-intensive part of raising livestock for red meat, whether the feed is grain  or forage-based. Some of this water comes from natural rainfall, while some is supplied through various irrigation methods. The problem is that many researchers don’t distinguish between rainfall and other forms of water use. This means that a large portion of the water attributed to red meat production is simply rain that falls on the fields or pasture used to feed the livestock


There is one other ill-informed belief that livestock cause desertification, however, grazing bison and cattle can actually reverse land destruction when their grazing patterns are well managed.

Grazing animals, often on land that is unusable to grow other crops, helps ensure less soil and nutrient loss through erosion, and improves retention of water.

Additionally, healthier ranchland can also aid the planet by sequestering more carbon in the form of roots and other plant tissues that use carbon dioxide from the air in their growth. Storing this organic matter in the soil will keep the carbon from re-entering the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, two major contributors to global warming.

Climate researchers have suggested that widespread implementation of regenerative practices worldwide which include no till and the use of cover crops, could have a significant impact, storing as much as 8 billion metric tons of carbon per year over the long term, or nearly as much as current annual emissions from burning of fossil fuels.

Are  bison good for the planet?  Yes. Bison ranching is very good for the environment and this article will help those that think that reducing livestock ranching in the attempt to reduce GHG emissions and tackle the global warming problem see that this  is misguided and inaccurate and in fact, the opposite is true.