All the right things are happening. Now we just need to get the herds big enough to put buffalo meat on everyone’s table. We may even see pemmican restored as a staple.
The latest burst is promoted by an enthusiast who sees merit in selling far western land to provide capital to buy down the failing lands of the buffalo commons. I guess the idea is for a giant unfenced open plain covered with huge herds. I will pass on that thank you.
We need those fences to manage herd size and provide grazing control. We may never fully restore the prairie back to the original buffalo grass of the past, but we can certainly try. In the meantime, a monoculture of buffalo is not smart either. We have already shown success in mixing cattle and buffalo. And once the deep rooted grasses are reestablished we may even have luck handling a few goats and sheep on those grasslands.
Make Way for Buffalo
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: October 29, 2003
This forlorn farm town Rawson, population 6 -- is a fine place to contemplate the boldest idea in America today: rescuing the rural Great Plains by returning much of it to a vast ''Buffalo Commons.''
The result would be the world's largest nature park, drawing tourists from all over the world to see parts of 10 states alive again with buffalo, elk, grizzlies and wolves. Restoring a large chunk of the plains -- which cover nearly one-fifth of the lower 48 states -- to their original state may also be the best way to revive local economies and keep hamlets like Rawson from becoming ghost towns.
Rawson used to be a bustling town with a railroad depot, two stores, a hotel, a bank, a post office, a gas station, a Lutheran church, a lumber yard, a grain elevator and a school. It had its own newspaper, The Rawson Tribune, and its slogan was ''Rawson, where opportunity awaits you.''
It has been downhill ever since. Two years ago, after the election for mayor ended in an exact tie (one vote for Nels Heggen and one vote for Garvin Gullickson), after the four adult residents tired of taxing themselves to pay for seven streetlights, they dissolved the city and turned it into an unincorporated village.
''My children won't come back here to live,'' admitted Mr. Heggen, whose grandfather ran the hotel in town.
It sounds cruel to say so, but towns like Rawson are a reminder that the oversettlement of the Great Plains has turned out to be a 150-year-long mistake, one of the longest-running and most costly errors in American history. Families struggled for generations to survive droughts and blizzards, then finally gave up and moved on. You can buy a home out here for $3,000, and you can sometimes rent one for nothing at all if you promise to mow the lawn and keep up the house.
The rural parts of the Great Plains are emptying, and in some cases reverting to wilderness.
It's immensely sad to travel through the Dakotas' ghost towns or Nebraska's cattle country -- where Loup is the poorest county in America -- because they are full of warm, hard-working, honest farmers and ranchers who are having their hearts broken. How can one not admire the people of Sentinel Butte, N.D., where there is no attendant at the gasoline station but the townspeople all have keys and pay on the honor system?
Yet honesty and sweat aren't enough to make farming and ranching successful in marginal lands. The farms produce plenty of grain and beef, but they will never make much money, even with billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. The economic model will be even less viable as underground aquifers run out in the next two or three decades. Much plains farming relies on the vast Ogallala aquifer, which is dropping at a rate of four feet per year.
So it's time to reach for something bold, like the Buffalo Commons idea, proposed in 1987 by Frank and Deborah Popper, two New Jersey social scientists. This would be the biggest step to redefine America since the Alaska purchase. Pushing it would give the environmental movement a chance to be known mainly by what it's for instead of for what it's against. But it would take close cooperation with the people with the most at stake: struggling farmers and ranchers, who for now are irritated by East Coast city slickers trying to turn their land into a buffalo playground.
''Why not let us manage our own affairs, just as people in New York would want to manage their own affairs?'' asked Keith Winter, a veteran rancher, during a break from working with his calves.
It's a fair question, and a Buffalo Commons can be achieved only if it benefits North Dakotans more than New Yorkers. That should be possible, for states like Colorado, Utah and Idaho have boomed by branching out from their traditional economic base to embrace tourism and recreation, and Buffalo Commons would become one of the world's wonders.
If Buffalo Commons comes about, perhaps a hotel can reopen in Rawlins, and Mr. Winter's ranch could draw German tourists who would pay to herd cattle. If the thunder of buffalo hooves is again heard on the open plains, that will not be the death knell for towns like Rawlins -- it will be their last, best hope.