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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Buffalo Commons

Air Date: Week of

Scott Schlegel reports on a plan to reclaim the ecology of the wild West by turning the Great Plains into a commons where the buffalo roam. The plan has cattle ranchers, farmers and ecologists divided.


CURWOOD: During the thousands of years that the ecology of the Great Plains developed, great herds of buffalo -- perhaps 80 million head or more -- began to thrive. In the Wild West, buffalo were well-adapted to the frigid winters and long droughts. Then came white settlers , the hunting to near extinction of the buffalo, and cattle ranching.

But in recent years cattle ranching has hit hard times, and a few ranchers are switching to buffalo. And as Scott Schlegel reports, some feel we should reclaim the ecology of the Wild West by turning the plains into a buffalo commons.

SCHLEGEL: During the 1800's, the first wave of white homesteaders pushed west onto the Great Plains to farm and raise cattle. The vast girth of America that reaches across ten states, from Canada to Mexico, became part of America's agricultural heartland. But for more than a decade, the people who once prospered on farms here have been leaving and small towns have been shrinking, in what's been dubbed the great reverse land rush. Frank Popper has been observing this transformation.

POPPER: They're depopulating because of difficulties in the agricultural and energy economies, they're depopulating because of draw-downs in the aquifers, particularly the Ogalala Aquifer, they're depopulating because of soil erosion, they're depopulating basically because they have difficulties holding young people.

SCHLEGEL: Frank Popper teaches urban studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He and his wife Deborah, a geologist, have produced a controversial plan for preserving some measure of economic prosperity on the Great Plains. The Poppers say the Federal Government and private consortiums should buy out failing farms, pull up their fences, and return the plains to their original inhabitants, the buffalo. In the process, they say, rugged plains earth stressed to near desertification by decades of intensive grazing and agriculture would be restored by the great herds. The Poppers call their plan "The Buffalo Commons."

POPPER: Think of the Buffalo Commons as midway between present agriculture and wilderness. It's a way to find an intermediate form of land use between conventional agriculture that has all the difficulties we know about, and wilderness, that at the same time yields an economic return sufficient to actually keep people in the neighborhood.

SCHLEGEL: The Buffalo Commons would engulf abandoned towns and unused farmland, and turn the communities that remain into islands on a sea of prairie grass, connected by fenced-in roadways. The Poppers contend that the Buffalo Commons would restore prosperity to the region's small towns by attracting tourists from around the world, who'd come to see great herds of buffalo as they roam the plains. They say the process would take a long time, perhaps as much as 20 to 30 years, but that the foundation for the Buffalo Commons already exists on the multitude of western Federal lands and Indian reservations.

(Sound of bison)

SCHLEGEL: Paul Jonjak thinks there's something to the Poppers' argument. Several years ago Jonjak sold his Wisconsin cranberry farm and moved west to raise buffalo, also known as American bison, on a four-thousand acre ranch on the western edge of the Great Plains north of Denver.

JONJAK: The Great Plains are where the bison developed and they evolved there, the plants evolved along with them.

SCHLEGEL: Jonjak explains that bison are better for the land because they graze over much larger areas than beef cattle. Beef cattle also feed on large amounts of grain, which require machinery, additional land, fertilizer, and often irrigation to grow on the plains. Bison forage for themselves on indigenous grasses and plant life.

JONJAK: They select those plants that are good for their health, and it's also good for those plants to be grazed. One of the things people often don't realize about grazing is that most of the plants on the Great Plains need regular grazing in order to be in good health and the bison do provide that grazing.

SCHLEGEL: Jonjak says that by grazing over a wider area than beef cattle, bisons' hooves break up more ground, encouraging the re-seeding of plants. Of course, Jonjak and other ranchers who are raising buffalo on the plains aren't just doing it to help restore the ecology. They're raising the animals for their meat, something which is not necessarily part of the Poppers' proposal. Although Jonjak thinks buffalo can be both better for the land and more profitable for ranchers, he questions whether the Poppers' grand scheme would work.

JONJAK: Most everybody that I've talked with who's changed from cattle to bison has been happy with the switch. But I'm not sure it's economically feasible to go and buy up everybody's land and take out all the fences and turn it back into the Wild West that it once was. It's a romantic idea, I'd love to see it and so would lots of people.

SCHLEGEL: However, many Great Plains ranchers are much less open-minded about the Poppers' idea.

STULP: I think it would be virtually impossible and ridiculous to try to put this back into a Buffalo Commons.

SCHLEGEL: John Stulp raises cattle and feed grain on the eastern plains of Colorado, near Lamar. He's disturbed by the "Buffalo Commons" concept, and resentful of what he calls Eastern academics who presume to understand the workings of Plains agriculture. Stulp says the Poppers are ignoring the fact that despite years of drought, many people are still prospering in the area.

STULP: It offers a lot of opportunities for a lot of people and to think that it would be ecologically the thing to do is beyond my imagination, and I think they have a very active imagination to even propose the idea.

SCHLEGEL: Stulp and other Plains ranchers say the Poppers have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is that's pushing people off their land. What the region's ranchers and farmers need, many say, are better prices on world markets, more Federal subsidies, and help developing new technologies for irrigation and soil conservation to make Plains agriculture work better. However, the Poppers contend that sooner or later, many Plains residents will have to face reality. Geologist Deborah Popper.

D. POPPER: Some places they've been able to make adaptations, which make the farming much more workable, but in other places it is unsustainable, or it is unsustainable unless we come up with some new brilliant idea.

SCHLEGEL: Despite the anger their Buffalo Commons idea is stirring, the Poppers hope they're encouraging useful debate about the future of the Great Plains. And they say the dialogue they've engaged in as they've traveled the area speaking and writing has helped them sharpen their proposal, and helped soften some of the reaction to it. However, so far no one's taking steps to make the Buffalo Commons a reality. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel.



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