Monday, December 21, 2009

Dreaming prairie, dreaming big

Sit any prairie ecologist or biologist down for a long enough chat—long enough to get past the litany of dwindling species, the details of research, and the cultural, political and economic obstacles in the way of recovery—and sooner or later you will hear, quietly, even reluctantly, a description of what could be done to restore the health of our beleaguered prairie ecosystems.

“Well, if we really wanted to help out the birds,” they say, “we’d have to find a way to set aside some very big pieces of prairie and manage them for biodiversity. You know, make a huge grassland reserve.”

The proper scale for a functioning grassland can be debated, but most ecologists would agree that big is good and bigger is better. Any hope we have of restoring and conserving even a facsimile of the original prairie wildness that greeted our settler ancestors will require some big thinking.

In recent decades, there have been a few different versions of this grand vision of renewing the plains over thousands of square miles. Some speak of a “prairie wildlife corridor,” similar to the Yellowstone to Yukon project, focussing on conserving the Rockies north to south in ways that protect wildlife that depend on the mountains. Some focus on the appealing idea of returning key species, in particular the buffalo, to large, unfenced sanctuaries. Others talk of targeting a percentage of grassland that governments around the world should be lobbied to conserve as a minimum.

It may have started with those much-maligned Eastern geographers, the Poppers, Frank and Deborah, when they made their proposal to create a “Buffalo Commons”. That was back in the 1980s. Prairie conservationists winced and ducked as the brickbats went overhead across the 100th Meridian. Prairie farmers don’t like having urban experts tell them what to grow, much less that they are a lost cause that has become too expensive to subsidize and their land should be returned to the buffalo.

When the Poppers came west on speaking tours in the ‘80s they needed armed guards to escort them in and out of venues. Conservationists and biologists have encountered the same hostility to any large scale grassland preserve proposals—especially if the proposal requires the removal of cattle. “You can’t do that. That’s taking the land out of production.” Prairie people harbour deep-seated assumptions that the prairie was made for them to produce high-yield crops or at least fat cattle, and any other use or purpose is unacceptable. It is this attitude that makes any ecologist hesitant to speak their mind on how to restore health to grasslands.

The Poppers are still working on the idea these days and have learned a great deal from their first forays into the re-imagining of the Great Plains. Here is a recent article they wrote on the subject.

Meanwhile, other groups have scaled the concept back down a bit. “The American Prairie Foundation” has a smaller, but still large enough, project underway in the United States. They say that their goals are as follows:

1. “To accumulate and wisely manage, based on sound science, enough private land to create and maintain a fully-functioning prairie-based wildlife reserve.
2. To provide a variety of public access opportunities to this wildlife amenity.
3. To ensure that the land remains productive in a way that contributes significantly to the local economy.

Sounds pretty harmless, but they are meeting some resistance from ranchers in the Montana area where they have been buying up land. Orion Magazine, one of my favourite publications, published an article on the foundation in 2006.
And here is a link to the APF website.

Yurt village for APF donors to visit the grassland project

This article in yesterday's Billings Gazette gives a more detailed and up-to-date account of the concerns of ranchers, which cannot be merely dismissed. The interesting thing about this controversy is that it has the Montana ranchers working to find new ways (they have always seen themselves as stewards of the grassland) of building conservation values into their operations.

People often ask me if there is any hope for our grassland birds, and I never know exactly what to answer with, but I can say that one of the places I find hope in our prairie landscapes is in the big dreams of people who are working hard to bring about big prairie preserves. APF is one way, The Nature Conservancy in the US is another, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada here north of the Medicine Line has its own approach. (Here are some others: Texas-based Great Plains Restoration Council; New Mexico-based National Center for Frontier Communities, which does research and advocates for small isolated communities in the Plains and across the country.) Because APF is a little more aggressive in its methods of buying land, they will run into some conflict. Land that once supported a handful of ranchers and their families may no longer be available for ranching, but there will be plains bison where the land has not had any for far too long and a big chunk of grassland will be managed primarily for biodiversity rather than economic gain. Is that not a reasonable compromise for a nation to make?


  1. Anyone interested in more information about the Buffalo Commons should look at my Rutgers website, I and my wife Deborah, a geographer at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York and Princeton University, originated the idea in 1987. The only national group specifically devoted to creating the Buffalo Commons is the Texas-based Great Plains Restoration Council,, whose president is Jarid Manos, (Disclosure: I chair its board.) Another important group is the New Mexico-based National Center for Frontier Communities,, whose executive director is Carol Miller, It does research and advocates for small isolated communities not just in the Plains and West, but across the country. (More disclosure: Deborah and I are on its board.) Last month the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle editorially endorsed the Buffalo Commons, recommending that it be the name of a national park and specifying two western Kansas counties on the Colorado border as its core. Best wishes for the new year,
    Frank Popper
    732-932-4009, X689

  2. Thanks for sending along the comment, Frank--and for those helpful links. I will check them out.


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