Friday, February 5, 2010

More big prairie ideas: Richard Manning and the American Prairie Reserve

Missouri River, near Judith Landing, image courtesy of Ross Barclay

Today I received an email from Murray, a biologist friend, letting me know that Richard Manning is coming to Saskatchewan to speak as guest lecturer at the “Forward Together Lecture,” at the University of Regina on 30 March 2010. The lecture is co-sponsored by Luther College, Campion College, First Nations University of Canada and the University of Regina.

image courtesy of

Manning, a Montana environmentalist and writer, is an important voice for restoration and conservation on the northern Great Plains. His articles and essays have been published in Harper's Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Audubon, and The Bloomsbury Review.His eight books include Grasslands (1997), Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization (2004), and last year (and the subject of this posting), Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape.

One of the fascinating things about Manning is that he works as research associate for the National Native Children's Trauma Center at the University of Montana. He writes about poverty, trauma, mental illness, and self-care on a blog that is worth reading—not because it relates to grassland restoration and conservation, but because it applies the same cogent, clear-headed approach he applies to the traumatized and impoverished ecosystems and communities of the northern Great Plains—and he is wise enough to recognize that the two subjects share some causes.

So, his new book and the big idea contained therein: I confess I have read only the opening chapter of Rewilding so far (read it here yourself ), but it is too exciting a book to not at least mention the central idea it advances.

image courtesy of University of California Press

People who write about ecological problems are often criticized for not suggesting solutions and when we do, the complaint comes that the solutions we suggest are unrealistic. Big ideas are always said to be unrealistic, but it takes big ideas to address big problems, and those who cling in despair to the status quo will be first to tell you that you can’t defeat corporate power, convert agriculture to sustainable practices, change people’s attitudes to smoking, end segregation, save big pieces of landscape. And yet we have done all of those things to one degree or another. Some are still works in progress, but change is happening and it is happening because there are people who don’t give up on big ideas.

Richard Manning’s big idea is to work with private and public conservation agencies and the people of the northern Great Plains to find a way to draw a border of ecological protection around 3.5 million acres of native prairie centering on the Missouri River passes through the Missouri Breaks National Monument and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. They call it “The American Prairie Preserve” and estimate that for $250 million (about ten days of the Iraq war expenditure), enough of the necessary private land could be purchased to create “a Yellowstone of the Plains.”

Missouri River from the rim of the valley, image courtesy of Ross Barclay

Replacing cattle with wild bison and elk would be a key step of course, but the “rewilding” movement follows the ecological theory that top predators are a priority in any ecological restoration. With that in mind, the Northern Plains Conservation Network, the group Manning highlights in the book, is also proposing that ultimately, wolves and grizzlies would have to be encouraged out onto the plains where they once reigned.

Here is a quote from the opening chapter of Rewilding the West: “Three and a half million acres are a big enough area to work as a prairie ecosystem. The size of that area was not arbitrarily chosen but was calculated by biologists Steve Forrest and Curtis Freese, two of the authors of Ocean of Grass, as the minimum landscape they think could support enough bison to support, in turn, a viable population of wolves.”

It is a lot of fun looking at the various maps in the Ocean of Grass document. One shows access lines for the grizzlies and wolves from surrounding areas. Here is a link to Ocean of Grass: a Conservation Assessment for the Northern Great Plains.

I have canoed much of that piece of the Missouri River twice, spending a total of eight days in its unparalleled prairie wildness where the ghosts of Lewis and Clark linger over land that agriculture has yet to destroy. The buffalo, elk, grizzlies, and wolves are about all that is missing and they are not far away in the Rockies. Everything else is there: a full suite of grassland birds, rattlesnakes, black-tailed prairie dogs, cottonwoods, and miles of wild grass. Here are a couple of images taken by my good friend Ross Barclay on that trip:

part of our crew after a long day on the river

and me trying to make it look like we actually paddled(it is a float trip on a 4 mph current)
both images courtesy of Ross Barclay

If you care about the prairie and want to be think about what can be done to bring it back to life, get Manning’s new book and read it, and then try to come to his lecture on March 30. It is at 7:30 p.m. in the Education Auditorium.

All are welcome; free parking is available in lots 4, 14 and 17 (designated "M" areas only); and a book sale and signing will follow the lecture. The lecture is presented by the presidents of Luther College, Campion College, First Nations University of Canada and the University of Regina. For further information contact Jennifer Arends at 306.585.5144 or

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.


Share this post

Get widget