Where the Buffalo Roam

courtesy of Mother Jones
by David Samuels

America’s plains are emptying out. Should we give them back to the beasts?

To glimpse the future of the Great Plains, you take Route 191 past the Crazy Mountains through Lewistown, Montana, to a 123,000-acre tract of former ranchland where human habitation is scant and the bison roam. The soil contains bentonite, a kind of clay used in makeup. The land gets a measly 11 inches of rain per year, rendering it unfit for most agricultural uses. When it rains in the spring, which isn’t often, the mud dries into hard ruts that last into the fall and jolt the spine of even the most deliberate driver.

I pull over to the side of the road and watch a red-tailed hawk hunting overhead. A pronghorn deer startles at my approach and nervously circles the spot where it dropped its newborns. The prairie undulates like a vast inland sea, with no cars or houses visible for miles in any direction. In the spring, the grasslands are dotted with purple, yellow, and white flowers, and waterfowl rise from the marshes and watering holes. By August, temperatures can hit 107 degrees and up. In the winter, the prairie roads are covered in six-foot drifts of snow in which animals and people freeze to death.

What makes this landscape so remarkable is the intimation of what some people see as the future of conservation in America, a future that many people who live here—who see themselves as the true conservationists—don’t want. It is a big, dreamy idea that began in academic journals and is now slowly making its way into county land registers. One day, if all goes according to plan, the surrounding ranches and public lands will be part of a 3 million-acre grassland reserve run by the American Prairie Foundation (APF), a private entity formed at the urging of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and bankrolled by big-name donors who believe that landscapes like this one should be objects of awestruck contemplation, rather than pastures for cattle.

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