An Inconvenient Ruminant

The inconvenient ruminant in question is the North American Bison, colloquially known as an American Buffalo.

An American Bison [wikipedia: Jack Dykinga]
The American Buffalo is a potent symbol in the USA and Canada. They have been called Buffalos since the very first European settlers arrived in the mid 1600’s and generally that is what they are known as today.

In fact there are two different subspecies of American Buffalo. The Plains Bison and the Wood Bison. Both are large animals with the Woods Bison being among the biggest of bovine animals in the world and certainly the biggest land animal in the Americas

The American Bison is undoubtedly a magnificent wild beast. But as a species they presents a bit of a problem for Vegan and other Climate Change fanatics like Extinction Rebellion. These are the people who are seeking to reduce/ban/outlaw meat eating on some half-baked delusion that disavowing meat and substituting (say) Mung beans will save the planet.

Let me tell you (with help from the history of the American Bison) why they are wrong.

But first let us just review what exactly the argument against meat production is, and why it is actually deeply flawed even without bringing the American Bison into the argument.

The general attack on the livestock industry these days centres around Climate Change and a blinkered mindset that somehow has convinced itself that animal husbandry is a "bad thing"

The main thrust of the Vegan/Extinction Rebellion argument is that domestic ruminants (mainly cattle) emit large quantities of methane. Methane is a known greenhouse warming gas with an immediate impact. Initially this impact is many times the forcing impact of an equivalent amount of Carbon Dioxide.

So you would think that the more cattle you had then the worse it would be. Over a decadel time-scale (ten years or so) and to an limited extent, that is true.

But Methane is a volatile gas and quickly breaks down in the atmosphere. It decays away exponentially. Within 18 months of a release half is gone. Within 12 years the amount left is immeasurable.

So if your ruminant herd size is stable then the warming effect from the methane release from this herd is stable. If you increase the herd size then it is true the methane release increases. But the warming effect from this increase stabilises within ten years. The net result is that for all countries with more or less stable ruminant herd sizes the contribution to global warming is already factored in. Further warming from these stable herds will be nil. Zilch. Nada.

If you want some proof of this then try this post on the British Veterinary Associations website HERE. But better still refer to the actual paper from Oxford University (IPCC researchers none the less) HERE.

Remember though. We haven’t got to the inconvenient history of the American Bison yet.

American Bisons come from countries (the USA and Canada) that the average Vegan zealot would regard as the arch-criminals of meat eating Methane production.

The USA has between 60 and 80 million cattle, all farting and burping (mostly burping) out their Methane like there was no tomorrow. But, as shown by Oxford University, if the herd size is stable, all that warming from Methane is already factored in.

This is not a gaseous Armageddon in the making. But it gets even more interesting. In fact on an historical timescale there is a reasonable chance that total ruminant emissions, (including the millions of domestic cows) may well be lower now than it was 400 years ago.

How come?  It comes down to a (real) man-made ecological disaster that befel the American Bison in the 19th century.

American Bisons or Buffaloes (call them what you will) were nearly hunted to extinction from around 1830 through to 1880.

By 1880 there were less than 1000 American Buffalos left. Luckily, even in those dark days there were people who recognised the importance in preserving these magnificent beasts.

The American Plains Buffalo was rescued from the brink of extinction. The Woods Buffalo though was feared to be extinct for over 70 years.

Then by sheer luck a herd of 200 were found in a remote part Northern Alberta in Canada in 1957.

Today in total there are about 500,000 American Buffalos in existence. Their recovery from the brink of extinction is an epic tale and something we should all be proud of. Just as we should be truly appalled how they got to the point of extinction in the first place.

So what? You may ask. How does this relate to methane release?

One simple figure should tip you off.

Remember those 500,000 American Buffalos that exist today?

Well, that number is probably less than one per cent of the estimated herd size back in 1700.

Back in 1700 the American Buffalo herd size has been estimated at being between a low of 30 million and up to 75 million. There is even a possibility it topped 100 million. A total herd population of 60 million seems to be the consensus estimate. The herds of Buffalo once stretched from down in Miami right up to Alaska.

The net result of the hunting carnage in the 19th century is that today the methane emissions from the domestic American cattle herd is largely offset and maybe completely offset by that from the slaughtered (and now missing) 60 million American Bison.

So cattle ranching in the USA and Canada has in reality only brought ruminant methane release back up to around that in pre-settlement days.

Nobody suggests that the wanton slaughter of 60 million American Bison in the 19th century was a “good thing”. Far from it.

But it does mean that today the scare stories surrounding methane release from domestic cattle in the USA and Canada are at best over-blown.

At worst they are a myth.

There is quite a good Wikipedia piece on the American Bison HERE

More information on methane release by Bison and other wild ruminants can be found in This Article

What looks like an interesting book (only skimmed it so far) from the 1890’s titled:

The Extermination of the American Bison 
by William T. Hornaday

Hornaday was the Superintendent of the U.S. National Zoological Park. It looks like he was one of the heroes who saved the day as far as the American Bison was concerned.

His book is available for free from the Gutenberg project on THIS LINK.


Anonymous said...

Why did you change the post?

BilloTheWisp said...

First of all - sorry about the delay in replying.

I only changed the post superficially. None of the details regarding the impact of static herd size and/or near buffalo extinction on methane release were changed. That was because they were(and are) accurate.

But I decided I didn't like the original semi-jokey presentation which detracted from message.

So I modified the presentation slightly.