This is a revisit of the Buffalo Commons that has helped shape discussion regarding the Great Plains for the past two decades and has generated restoration initiatives. We posted on the topic first around eighteen months ago and this is a fresh item on the subject. Do visit the site.
What the Poppers made clear was the rather unwelcome understanding that traditional agriculture was failing in this region. It had been failing from the beginning but this failure had been masked by human optimism.
The thesis today is better accepted and the response is now better directed for this insight. Most importantly, step by step, the buffalo is been reintroduced and properly managed. The herds are expanding steadily, but not as fast as natural expansion. Some form of the old prairie is also been established, even though that biome was driven even closer to extinction.
We can all accept that this will take decades and possibly centuries. On the other hand herd expansion can be fast if simply left alone. Biome expansion has to start with the establishment of refugia.
The other arrow in this quiver that is worth exploring is the reestablishment of the buffalo back in Asia and Europe. It was there and was simply hunted to extinction by our Ice Age ancestors. There is ample grassland and steppe that is suitable for little else.
We do not understand how vulnerable the buffalo and other wild bovines were to human hunting. The muskoxen have been hunted out of the taiga and the boreal forests and the buffalo out of Eurasia. Others such as the aurochs are extinct.
Establishing herd management districts throughout the northern taiga and boreal forest is a viable option. Expanding it into the more productive semi arid grasslands is a natural addition.
In the meantime, buffalo husbandry is now in full stride. There is a ready market for both carcasses and breeding stock and good breeding practices are been established. We now need to do the same thing with muskoxen. Caribou and the like tend to be migratory and more difficult to manage but still represent a husbandry opportunity.
As you may gather, I am a strong proponent of managed ownership of all plausible wild stocks to ensure their health and long term survival and so that we may manage the related environment properly.
Huge buffalo herds may be maintained by the simple practice of a large fall slaughter and the provision of supplemental feed for the wintering breeding stock. Beef husbandry is as simple. Minimal fencing can prevent migration.
And once a biological resource is owned, its survival becomes assured. The same needs to happen the fisheries.
The Buffalo Commons is a cultural and social movement for positive, restorative social and ecological change on the Great Plains.
As both model and metaphor, the Buffalo Commons includes various, sometimes seemingly disconnected components that all add up to a new healthier life for our region centered around sustainability and regained community. This restoration economy can include everything from GPRC’s Million Acre Projects and Plains Youth InterACTION program, to a small West Texas or Kansas farmer’s re-banking of the soil on his land, to a group of Lakota or Oklahoma or Colorado mothers working together to stage gang intervention or ward off a meth invasion, to a string of communities along two hundred miles of a creek or river working to establish clean, healthy water flows again, to environmental groups making ecologically-focused land purchases. It's problem solving through local, hands-on action.
The Buffalo Commons engages Prairie/Plains people to get invested in the healthful restoration of their communities and local environment wherever they live. Small businesses, housewives, big landholders, small landholders, inner-city children, Indian elders, cities, suburbs, towns and villages can all take pride in the unique identity of being and belonging to our Great Plains region, and working together in a shared sense of community, rather than the old way of every man (or woman) for him/herself.
History of the Buffalo Commons Movement
In 1987, Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper developed their bold new idea for a Buffalo Commons, (Popper and Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, PLANNING, 1987). Their continuing research showed that hundreds of counties in the American West still have less than a sparse 6 persons per square mile — the density standard Frederick Jackson Turner used to declare the American Frontier closed in 1893. Many have less than 2 persons per square mile.
The frontier never came close to disappearing, and in fact has expanded in the Plains in recent years. The 1980 Census showed 388 frontier counties west of the Mississippi. The 1990 Census shows 397 counties in frontier status, and the 2000 Census showed 402. Most of this frontier expansion is in the Great Plains. Kansas actually has more land in frontier status than it did in 1890.
Great Plains Restoration Council mounted a Plains-wide mapping project at the county level, using a series of economic and social indicators, to show exactly where the frontier is and how much further it has expanded. GPRC than did more sophisticated mapping that scrutinized these and other factors down to the Census Block level, allowing for a much more rigorous and exact understanding of ecological, biological, geographical, topographical, demographic and political conditions. Since then, we have specifically honed our focus onto a few, key target ecological areas while developing a new model of youth education.
There once were over 400 million acres of wild prairie grasslands in the central part of North America. The backbone of the Buffalo Commons movement is the work — over a period of decades — to re-establish and re-connect prairie wildland reserves and ecological corridors large enough for bison and all other native prairie wildlife to survive and roam freely, over great, connected distances, while simultaneously restoring the health and sustainability of our communities wherever possible so that both land and people may prosper for a very long time. Future generations may choose to expand these reserves and corridors, as the new culture of caring and belonging we have started today becomes an integral, ingrained part of life in the world of tomorrow, especially as extensive grasslands become needed to help absorb carbon from the atmosphere. (Highly biodiverse native prairies are excellent carbon sequesters.)
Below is the original short scholarly paper that started it all:
“The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust.”
Below is another, more recent, short scholarly paper by the Poppers.
- by Drs. Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper
The Great Plains and the Buffalo Commons
by Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper