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Know the West

The Poppers tell a biased story

  Dear HCN,

In the opinion of Frank and Deborah Popper, their Buffalo Commons idea is accurate, but your headline tells the real story: "The bison are coming' - not the "Commons' (HCN, 2/2/98).

If the Poppers had said 10 years ago that bison (note they still get the animals' name wrong) should become more numerous on the Great Plains, or even should replace cattle, I doubt they would have drawn much attention. It was the "commons' idea that caused all the controversy, because it said to the people of the Plains: You've failed, you can't make it without subsidies, and your land should become public land for eco-tourism. For the Poppers to leave the commons idea all but unmentioned now, while uncritically congratulating themselves for anticipating the increase in bison herds - that's revision, not retrospect.

You could point to any rural area in the United States and show where farming has been subsidized and people have been leaving the land. People of the Plains know this; no wonder the Poppers met resistance for singling them out for criticism. Subsidized, depopulated rural areas anywhere could just as well be proposed for eco-tourists' commons. For that matter, the next time a building falls to earthquakes, mudslides or hurricanes ...

I know firsthand the problems of agriculture and rural economies, but I say that to portray out-migration as failure is shading the truth. My father is a typical farmer, working hard to raise four kids who went on to off-farm work, even professions. I've yet to hear the Poppers admit the truth of my father's life, and that of thousands of other Plains farmers: successful, laudable, exemplary. No wonder they met resistance.

It is inaccurate to say the Forest Service "may allow" ranchers to graze bison on national grasslands in the Great Plains. The Poppers may have said that out of ignorance, or maybe because it suits them. If it's the latter, I'm calling their bluff: The agency already allows ranchers to graze bison; a rancher in my Zip code does so now. Some grazing associations prohibit using bison, but that is another story.

What is new is that the Forest Service will discuss bison as the agency revises its management plans for the national grasslands of the northern Great Plains. (See "Revision Reporter," November 1997, from USFS, 125 N. Main St., Chadron, NE 69337.) But you'd have to be naive, wishfully thinking, to assert that this means the agency will somehow "allow" or even encourage bison grazing on public lands.

All in all, the Poppers' article mainly serves to lessen their credibility. How else can we respond to a generalization like "noticeable numbers' of ranchers have switched to bison? Well, what are the numbers? Show us the numbers, and let us decide if they indicate a real trend. The Poppers say the market for bison is strong, especially compared with cattle and sheep, but they left unsaid the fact that the demand for breeding, not slaughtering, bison is what keeps that market strong. Next time you publish such an uncritical opinion piece, with so many half-truths, I hope you will print a countering opinion right alongside.

Michael Melius

Hermosa, South Dakota