The bison are coming

  • Expansive: Prairie Church near McVille, North Dakota

    Richard Madson photo
  • Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper

    Nick Romanenko, Rutgers University

In the December 1987 issue of Planning, we wrote what we thought was an innocuous article on land use in the Great Plains. The piece explored the state of the short-grass, semi-arid region between the 98th meridian and the Rockies, a sixth of the Lower 48.

The most rural parts of the Plains faced long- standing problems - droughts, disappearing topsoil, depopulation, declines in the traditional agricultural and energy economies, and dependence on federal farm subsidies. We argued that in response, the Plains' future would draw on pieces of its past. We called this approach the Buffalo Commons.

To us, restoring a commons for buffalo offered a metaphor for a change to new uses of land that fell between intensive cultivation and pure wilderness, with less emphasis on agriculture and extraction and more on preservation and ecotourism.

For an exercise in social prophecy, the Buffalo Commons has enjoyed surprising impact, accuracy and endurance. Its tenth anniversary provides an occasion to reflect on its reach and ponder its possibilities.

The Buffalo Commons touched off a national debate about the fate of the Plains. Many environmentalists, Native Americans, and preservation- and tourism-based interests were inspired by the Buffalo Commons.

Ranchers, farmers, energy interests and communities often saw it as an assault on their livelihoods, legitimacy and ancestors. Some of our early speeches in the Plains required armed guards, and a 1992 Montana talk got canceled because of death threats.

The Buffalo Commons remains controversial. Reports regularly appear claiming that the Plains economy is booming, but they tend to focus on the Plains states overall or their urban centers, rather than on the most rural parts of the states. For example, in September 1997 the Center for the New West, a Denver group, issued a report celebrating "Economic Resurgence in the Great Plains," and the center's president, Phil Burgess, used the report to write off the Buffalo Commons as "folly." Yet the report included a section titled "Why Growth Slows at the 100th Meridian" and described the area west of that longitude as "still a kind of frontier where development often grinds to a halt and falling birth rates and out-migration take their toll." Exactly!

While conventional development was grinding "to a halt," by the middle 1990s the Buffalo Commons was forming on the ground, particularly in the Northern Plains. Public-lands buffalo herds increased markedly. On private land a noticeable number of Plains ranchers switched from cattle to buffalo and prospered economically and environmentally. Buffalo have nutritional advantages over cattle - less fat and cholesterol, more protein - and they drink less water, trample riverbank areas less and need less ranch work, especially in calving. They survive winter better, as in the 1996-97 Dakota-Montana blizzards and the October 1997 Colorado storm, and they yield higher profits.

The buffalo market, which barely existed 10 years ago, thrives while the cattle (and sheep) markets keep slipping. North Dakota Gov. Edward Schafer sees buffalo production and buffalo tourism as vital to the state's growth. The state's bank lends enthusiastically to buffalo ranchers, and its agricultural extension service offers them technical help. North Dakotans have established a marketing cooperative and a slaughtering-processing facility specially for buffalo and plan another one, which the state is encouraging. In 1996, its agriculture commissioner, Sarah Vogel, told The New York Times that North Dakota will someday have more buffalo than cattle.

In 1992, 19 Plains Indian tribes formed the InterTribal Bison Cooperative to reinvigorate buffalo's historically central place in their cultures. The cooperative, based in Rapid City, S.D., trains Indian buffalo producers and tribal land managers; promotes buffalo art and artifacts; operates a joint venture with an Indian-owned farming company; and has plans for a slaughtering-processing facility. The co-op has grown to 42 tribes, including some outside the Plains. The buffalo population on Indian land has tripled since 1992.

Until the 1990s, the Nature Conservancy, the country's leading land-preservation organization, tended to ignore the Plains, but it has recently made many purchases in the region. It often restores buffalo and ecologically associated animals and plants and sets up ecotourism enterprises. The conservancy and other preservation groups plan more such projects.

Federal agencies are also abetting the Buffalo Commons. The Forest Service may allow buffalo to graze on more of its forest and grassland holdings in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming. And in 1992, the U.S. Interior Department began the Great Plains Partnership, a wildlife protection effort by federal agencies, state governments, and their Canadian and Mexican counterparts. The Clinton administration expanded the program and assigned the Environmental Protection Agency to lead it.

Our research has stimulated other work on the Plains. Anne Matthews' book, Where the Buffalo Roam (Grove Weidenfeld, 1992), which focuses on our work (HCN, 12/16/91), was one of four finalists for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Since 1993, Lawrence Brown's bimonthly newsletter, From the Deep Plains, has presented a South Dakota rancher's friendly attempts to find alternatives to the Buffalo Commons. Ernest Callenbach's Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains (Island Press, 1995) and Daniel Licht's Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains (University of Nebraska Press, 1997) support the Buffalo Commons and suggest new ways to achieve it. Local environmental groups - for instance, South Dakota's Sierra Club chapter and Bring Back the Bison in Evanston, Wyo. - lobby for buffalo.

It has been exciting to watch our metaphor spring to life and acquire the muscle of reality. We see a growing recognition that the idea makes ecological and financial sense - that it offers a plausible option for many places, especially if the other choices are casinos, prisons, hazardous waste, agribusiness or continued slow-leak decline.

The emergence of the Buffalo Commons shows the adaptiveness of the rural West. We confidently await the further return of the buffalo.

Deborah E. Popper teaches geography at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York, and Frank J. Popper teaches land-use planning at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

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