Wild Vacations: Restoration of the American Buffalo and the Great Plains

There’s probably no place in America as romanticized and mythologized as the West, and the eco-travel industry is cashing in. For a fraction of the cost of an African safari, tourists can approximate the experience of a grasslands vacation by heading to the vast prairie preserves of Montana and the Dakotas. Called “rewilding,” allowing the northern plains to revert back to their natural state is turning the area into a destination with unparalleled access to a North American symbol that almost disappeared forever: the American buffalo.

While millions of bison once roamed and grazed all over the prairies, working as a keystone species that played an essential part of that region’s ecology, by the end of the 19th century rampant, irresponsible overhunting brought their numbers to an astonishing several hundred. In some inhumane cases, bison extermination was deliberate and aimed at a wider, more horrifying extinction:

Some U.S. government officials even promoted the destruction of the bison herds as a way to defeat their Native American enemies, who were resisting the takeover of their lands by white settlers. One Congressman, James Throckmorton of Texas, believed that "it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence." Soon, military commanders were ordering their troops to kill buffalo -- not for food, but to deny Native Americans their own source of food. – PBS: Buffalo Nation

On the heels of this near-extinction, a natural cycle of Great Plains drought that lasted eight years, the constant strong winds over the prairies, and the disastrous effects of deep plowing and soil erosion merged and transformed rich grassland into the Dust Bowl in the early 1930’s. By the time the drought ended, several decades of history had destroyed the perfect symbiosis between the American prairie landscape and the roaming, grazing bison herds uniquely suited to that land. Now after years of soil conservation and efforts to rebuild bison herds through zoo and private stock, national parks and preserves across the upper Midwest have started to attract adventurers and eco-travelers:

As the plains have become depopulated, locals have also started sighting regular migrations of pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and even bison. Taking advantage of the animal repopulation, Upper Midwest outfitters are designing extended wildlife safaris. Twice a year, the American Prairie Foundation runs safaris in the areas it has preserved, trips that at times include private plane flights across the open land. In the future, predicts Sean Garrity, the foundation’s president, Off the Beaten Path will run these safaris, and many local aviation outfits will begin prairie flights. Though often overshadowed by nearby Badlands National Park, South Dakota’s Custer State Park runs backcountry jeep safaris. The trips put visitors within feet of herds of bison roaming in the park, as well as providing background on their habits and history. – New York Times

For many plains activists, eco-travel is a much better fit for the prairie than farming. The American buffalo needs large tracts of grassland to thrive, although the American Bison Society notes that at 400,000 animals, bison herds are not yet large enough to fill their former ecological niche on the Great Plains. According to the New York Times,

“The idea of rewilding the West takes its inspiration from two professors, Frank and Deborah Popper. In an essay written two decades ago in the journal Planning, they suggested restoring the Upper Midwest to its native state, which they called the Buffalo Commons, and largely replacing agriculture in the region with eco-tourism.” – New York Times

Relying on tourism rather than agriculture will require an acute balance between wildlife and people on the plains. Saving the American buffalo from extinction and healing the ravages of the Dust Bowl only to watch them both ruined by uncontrolled resort development would be a tragedy on par with the original devastation. It’s a challenge as wide and sweeping as the prairie itself; to maintain a steady revenue stream as an eco-destination while retaining the wild, rugged quality of the land. Conservationists and plains activists are up to the test, especially since the connection between bison and the prairies has implications for the rest of the world, as well:

The backbone of the Buffalo Commons movement is the work — over a period of decades — to re-establish and re-connect prairie wildland reserves and ecological corridors large enough for bison and all other native prairie wildlife to survive and roam freely, over great, connected distances, while simultaneously restoring the health and sustainability of our communities wherever possible so that both land and people may prosper for a very long time. Future generations may choose to expand these reserves and corridors, as the new culture of caring and belonging we have started today becomes an integral, ingrained part of life in the world of tomorrow, especially as extensive grasslands become needed to help absorb carbon from the atmosphere. – Great Plains Restoration Council

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Frank Popper (anonymous)

Anyone interested in more information about the Buffalo Commons should look at my Rutgers website, policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/popper. I and my wife Deborah Popper, a geographer at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island and Princeton University, originated the Buffalo Commons idea. I am on the board of the only national group aimed at achieving it, the Great Plains Restoration Council, gprc.org, which operates in Colorado, South Dakota and Texas. Its president is Jarid Manos, greatplains@gprc.org.
Frank Popper
Rutgers and Princeton Universities
fpopper@rci.rutgers.edu, fpopper@princeton.edu
732-932-4009, X689

Written in June 2009

Anyone involved in writer collection about the Bison Parcel should visage at my Rutgers website, policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/popper. I and my partner Deborah Popper, a geographer at the Port Lincoln of New York/College of Staten Island and University Lincoln, originated the Metropolis Common air. I am on the populate of the exclusive federal group aimed at achieving it, the Outstanding Plains Improvement Council, gprc.org, which operates in Colorado, Southerly Dakota and Texas.
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roger
<a href="http://www.flightstosydney.com.au" rel="dofollow">flights to Sydney</a>

Written in December 2009

Anyone involved in writer collection about the Bison Parcel should visage at my Rutgers website, policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/popper. I and my partner Deborah Popper, a geographer at the Port Lincoln of New York/College of Staten Island and University Lincoln, originated the Metropolis Common air. I am on the populate of the exclusive federal group aimed at achieving it, the Outstanding Plains Improvement Council, gprc.org, which operates in Colorado, Southerly Dakota and Texas.
===============================
roger
<a href="http://www.flightstosydney.com.au">flights to Sydney</a>

Written in December 2009

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