Fall 2001, Volume 19.1
READING THE WEST
read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] _ vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.
Native American and Bison Populations Increase
Data from the 2000 census indicates that the overall population of the Great Plains-from eastern Montana and North Dakota to South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and West Texas-has been dwindling. Small farmers, who came to the region from the 1870s
However, two populations have been increasing in the area: Native Americans on the reservations and bison, many owned by Native American cooperatives.
In many counties [in the Great Plains], the losses [of human population] since the early 20th century have been so dramatic, so complete, that much of the terrain is essentially vacant. But… with that decrease there has come an even more dramatic increase in the Native American population, which has risen in places by more than 200 percent. The census does not count bison, but they too have reached numbers no one has seen since the late 1870's, when the great herds were nearly wiped out.
There are perhaps 300,000 bison on the Great Plains now, many owned by Native American cooperatives. It is hard to imagine more potent symbols of the American West than Native Americans and bison, so much so that it is almost always easier to see the history and the myths they evoke than it is to see the present-day reality. Native Americans are not, in fact, repopulating the Great Plains as a whole. In the Plains states, with few exceptions, Native American numbers are growing almost exclusively on the reservations, which are still plagued with deep poverty, social fragmentation and chronic illness of a kind more commonly seen among the urban poor…. The analogy with bison is sadly perfect. Bison may be reintroduced to the land, but they can hardly be reintroduced to the prairie—their native habitat—because most of it is simply gone….
Yet what is beginning to happen now may be the precursor of more hopeful changes to come. If this land can be kept open—something that seems to be happening on its own—and helped to revert to native grassland, something wonderful can be reborn, an ecosystem far more tolerant of climatic extremes than conventional farming can ever be. And with Native Americans repeopling the reservations and gaining cultural importance in this socially emaciated region, they may also find a welcome sense of political weight, a freedom in numbers, so to speak, that could form the basis for a new coherence in Native American life where coherence was so brutally fractured long ago.
Source: "Unsettled Plains," The New York Times, June 3, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com
Native American Population Up in Midlands
Cindy Gonzalez reports from Nebraska the 2000 Census data on the dramatic increases in American Indian populations and the concomitant decrease in Euro-American populations.
In Nebraska's Thurston County, which includes the Winnebago and Omaha Reservations, the American Indian population grew 21 percent, from 3,002 to 3,644—while the white population dropped 15 percent, according to 2000 Census figures.
In Knox County, where the Santee Indian Reservation is situated, the Native American population jumped 35 percent, from 482 to 652. In contrast, the white population decreased 5 percent.
Overall, the American Indian population in Nebraska grew nearly 15 percent in the 1990s, from 11,719 to 13,460.
In Iowa, which has no Indian reservations, 7,955 people reported their background to the census as Native American. That is up nearly 18 percent from 6,765 in 1990.
Source: "Indian Population Up in Midlands," Omaha World-Herald, April 11, 2001, p. 5.
Great Plains Reversion
Ben Macintyre reporting for The Times of London, uses his own observations to ruminate on the significance of the increase in the Great Plains of Native Americans and bison.
In 1991, I watched a buffalo die just outside Yellowstone National Park, its tongue lolling on to the bloodstained snow and several musket balls in its heart—put there by a New Jersey couple who had paid the state of Montana hundreds of dollars for a one-day license to shoot a wild American bison using old-fashioned black powder and shot.
Every winter, buffalo forage beyond the borders of Yellowstone, where they may legally be killed on the dubious grounds that they could spread brucellosis to domestic cattle.
Why, I asked Mr. New Jersey as he stood beside the dead animal with his musket while Mrs. New Jersey took snapshots, would anyone want to shoot such a magnificent creature when one could shoot a cow with the same degree of sport?
"History," he said. History is right. The American bison was once the most populous large mammal on earth, numbering 70 or 80 million, covering the Great Plains and sustaining an entire culture. In wanton slaughter, the hunters built towering cairns of buffalo bones, and by 1902 there were just 23 animals left in the wild, all in Yellowstone….
History cannot be reversed, they say. Yet on the Great Plains from Eastern Montana and North Dakota down to Oklahoma and West Texas, something of the sort is underway….
There are now more Indians and buffalo, and fewer white men, on the range than at any time since the 1880s. Native wild plants and grasses not seen for a century have revived, as the fields recede and the wild grassland spreads.
…While much of the rest of America is being transformed into a giant concrete mall, the Great Plains are gradually reverting towards a former state. There is an opportunity here for George Bush, a self-styled friend of the West. Instead of the $ 20 billion in subsidies spent every year to prop up ailing arable farms and ranches, money could be spent on aiding the "grassland renaissance" already underway.
Somewhere in Newark, New Jersey, the mounted head of a bull buffalo is staring down accusingly from the den wall of a man who likes history.
If the buffalo takes over the plains again, the home they roamed 150 years ago, then history will have come full circle, and the white settler with the gun will himself have become the relic of another era.
Source: The Times (London), July 14, 2001, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,264-2001241490,00.html
The Buffalo Roam—At Denver Airport
Mindy Sink reports in the Christian Science Monitor on Denver's contribution to increasing the bison population in the West.
Denver officials are considering a $3 million plan to install a herd of bison near the airport…. [O]fficials are trying to transform the monotonous drive to and from the teepeed terminals of Denver International.…
"It's a way for people to identify with the West," says Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Denver's Mayor Wellington Webb, who supports the plan.
…But officials also are thinking of giving tourists a real taste of the West. "One of the ideas we had was to also sell buffalo steaks, meatballs, hamburgers at the airport that people could pick up and take back with them," says Ms. Taylor. "If we can get the buffalo roaming, maybe we can make Denver known as a place to get buffalo meat"
…"When I go to Boston, I pick up lobster," says Mr. Hudson, the mayor's spokesman. "People might want to pick up buffalo steak or buffalo jerky here."
Source: Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 2001, 93: 2 https://www.csmonitor.com/durable/2001/02/12/fp2s2-csm.shtml
The Buffalo Roam—in Massachusetts
Bison may be the salvation of the family farm. Adam Gorlick reports for the Associated Press on the efforts by the Ciaglo brothers to develop their family's farm in Hadley, Massachusetts as a tourist stop—the Long Hollow Bison Farm.
"…This isn't great land for growing crops, and beef or dairy cows are a dead end because you have to spend so much time and money tending to them," said Paul Ciaglo, 34, who runs the farm with his brother, Fred, 36. "All you really need to raise buffalo is grass, and we've got plenty of that here. Other than feeding them, they like to be left alone."
With its 36 buffalo and a small roadside lunch grill, the Long Hollow Bison Farm seems out of place with the development of shopping areas and fast food restaurants just down Route 9. After all, bison usually conjure images of wide, open spaces and the Great Plains.
But the animals aren't all that unique to the Northeast, which is home to about 100 bison farms.
"The main attraction to raising buffalo is that they produce a lean meat," said Hugh Forbes, chairman of the Eastern Bison Association. "But the animals are also a huge fascination for people. Folks just like to stop by and look at them."
…The Ciaglo farm almost went to Wal-Mart in the mid-1990s when the discount retail giant wanted to build a store on the family's unused 60 acres. Instead, the brothers persuaded their parents to sell them the farm purchased in 1910 by their great-grandfather, a Polish immigrant.
"We didn't want to see our land get developed like that," Fred Ciaglo said. "We wanted to keep this as open space."
…"Whatever we do with this land, we want to have it fit perfectly," Fred Ciaglo said. "This is like our little piece of the West right here on Route 9 and we don't want to ruin it."
URL for Ciaglo farm: https://www.longhollowbison.com/
Let Them Eat Bison
Alex Kellogg reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the North American Bison Cooperative, an organization of more than 350 bison ranchers, plans to provide some two million pounds of the meat free to college cafeterias nationwide over the next year, hoping to hook college students on the taste—and the product.
…Last semester, Stanford, North Carolina State, and Utah State Universities were among the first institutions to let their students try the free samples, in the form of bison hot dogs and ground meat.
Some students are sold—at least on the samples. "Anything that is free tastes great," says Ben Riley, a senior at Utah State who tested the bison dogs. "They didn't taste quite like hot dogs. They were a little more gamy and a little more spicy, but I personally liked them. I went back for one more."
Source: "Turning Bison Into Cash Cows," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 12, 2001, 47: A8. https://chronicle.merit.edu/chronicle/v47/4718guide.htm
Copyright of Chronicle of Higher Education, reprinted with permission.
Save the Buffalo
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit in July against a Forest Service decision to allow continued cattle grazing on important bison winter ranges (Horse Butte Allotment) adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. The Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund is co-counsel with NWF in the litigation.
"For the last five years, the Forest Service has promised to fully evaluate the alternatives to continued livestock grazing on the Horse Butte Allotment just west of Yellowstone Park," said Tom France, NWF's counsel. "By reissuing the grazing permit, the Forest Service has broken this promise. We know alternative pastures exist, but the Forest Service has chosen to ignore this fact and continue a livestock grazing program that will inevitably lead to continued hazing and killing of bison by the State of Montana because of ill-founded concerns about disease transmission between bison and cattle."
In December 2000, the Gallatin National Forest reissued a 10-year livestock grazing permit for the Horse Butte allotment. The Yellowstone buffalo naturally migrate to the Horse Butte peninsula during the winter, where they migrate out of the park to find food and escape deep snow.
Due to livestock grazing on Horse Butte, the federal and state governments have undertaken a program of hazing and killing buffalo that migrate into Horse Butte, based on an unscientific fear of the bovine disease brucellosis, which has never been known to be transmitted from wild buffalo to domestic cattle. During the harsh winter of 1996-97, 310 buffalo were shot along the Park's west boundary, and 48 more were sent to slaughter.
InterTribal Bison Cooperative
The InterTribal Bison cooperative was formed in 1990 to coordinate and assist tribes in returning the buffalo to Indian country. In February 1991, a meeting in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was hosted by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society…. Congress appropriated funding for tribal bison programs in June of 1991….
In September of 1992, ITBC was incorporated in the state of Colorado and that summer ITBC was headquartered in Rapid City, South Dakota.
…ITBC has a membership of 42 tribes with a collective herd of over 8,000 bison. Membership in ITBC remains open, and there is continued interest by nonmember tribes in the organization.
"I love the land and the buffalo
and will not part with it. I want
you to understand well what
"Buffalo Nation, The People are
depending upon you, so we pray
you will be healthy"
"Let us honor the bones of
those who gave their flesh
to keep us alive."
Buffalo altar prayer
The Buffalo Commons
In 1987 Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University proposed a "Buffalo Commons" in the Great Plains. The proposal has continued to be controversial and provocative.
The Great Plains Restoration Council is currently mounting a Plains-wide mapping project, using a series of economic and social indicators, to show exactly where human population densities are declining—areas which, therefore, may potentially become part of the Buffalo Commons.
…The Buffalo Commons will be a restored and reconnected area from Mexico to Canada, where we humans learn to work together across borders that were artificial in the first place. The Buffalo Commons means the day when the fences come down. The buffalo will migrate freely across a restored sea of grass, like wild salmon flow from the rivers to the oceans and back. Settled areas can—like they do in Kenya—fence the animals out, not fence them in.
For ten years, the Buffalo Commons was just talk. Great Plains Restoration Council was formed to make the Buffalo Commons a reality. GPRC is the only group specifically dedicated to its realization.
The Buffalo Commons will happen in steps. Our Safe Zone (The Million Acre Project) will be the core heart of the coming Buffalo Commons. It will offer the highest degree of natural refuge anywhere in the U. S.
Buffalo Commons or Mammoth Savannah?
Tom Isern, writing for NEWS, from North Dakota State University, proposes an alternative to the Buffalo Commons.The idea of a Buffalo Commons, as proposed by Deborah and Frank Popper of Rutgers University in 1987, keeps rattling around, stirring people up from Texas to Saskatchewan. What nobody in the public eye seems to have noticed is that all the ecological assumptions on which the Popper proposals were based have since come unwrapped. Scientifically, the Buffalo Commons now seems like a quaint idea.
The premise of the Poppers is that there is a proper state of nature on the plains. The stable state of nature is prairie with bison as the dominant grazing species. The Buffalo Commons seeks restoration of this stable state. The first problem is, ecologists no longer think there is such a thing as a stable state of nature. Nature and all the formations within it are ever-changing.
Wheat culture on the plains is unstable. The point is, bison culture is unstable, too. Prairie is unstable. Wheat, or bison, or prairie will persist only with the help of human husbandry.
…The baseline for survival among Plains Indians was not meat—bison were there for the killing—but winter browse for the horses, found in the river and creek bottoms. Plains Indians were not so much hunters as pastoralists, that is, practitioners of animal husbandry.
In fact, they had the whole landscape under their care. They did not just live off the land, they shaped the landscape, creating and preserving prairie, mainly by use of fire, possibly by manipulating grazing in ways we don't yet understand. Remove people, remove husbandry, from the plains, and in most places, prairie and bison will pass away.
…You see, I'm convinced that in the absence of human intervention, and barring some great climatic change, the Great Plains of North America would constitute a vast savannah inhabited by—woolly mammoth. Leading archeologists in both America and Australasia have concluded that the great extinctions of mega-fauna (big birds and mammals) of the past were accomplished by humankind. Woolly mammoth, like the diprotodon of Australia or the moa-bird of New Zealand, were big, dumb creatures highly vulnerable to spear-chucking humans. The aborigines, the Maori, and the American Indians learned to practice husbandry, to take care of the land and its creatures, only after they had knocked off the big, easy game.
In lieu of a Buffalo Commons, I propose a Mammoth Savannah. Fencing might be an issue, but a civilization that could clone woolly mammoth ought to be able to fence them….
Own Your Own Piece of the Buffalo Commons
From Montana is advertised:A residential and commercial community in the heart of the Flathead Valley. Feel the spirit of the Buffalo Commons heritage, a first of its kind Planned Unit Development in Kalispell, Montana.
Give us a chance to
show you a place
where the deer and
the antelope still play.
In a recent report on the Northern Prairie Pothole Region, the Northern Prairie Wildfire Research Center characterized that area as one that has been so "managed" in this century as to make it impossible to return it to a pre-settlement state.
…In Iowa and southern Minnesota, nearly all of the original wetlands were eliminated. From the 1780s to the 1980s, about 42%, 50%, 35%, and 26% of wetlands were lost in the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, respectively. Further, dams were constructed on most of the major river systems, inundating the natural riverine and riparian habitats.…
Declining commodity prices owing to overproduction and an alarming loss of soil prompted the initiation of a number of programs designed to convert cropland to grass and legume cover over the past four decades. The Soil Bank Program, initiated in the 1950s, converted vast areas from cropland to grassland, but by the late 1960s these lands were returned to cultivation. The Water Bank Program of the 1970s restored grassland to some cropped areas. More recently, the Conservation Reserve Program has been successful in converting crop land to grassland on highly erodible soils.
In summary, natural variability and changing priorities for land management have created a mosaic of habitat types, each of which is in constant flux. It is impossible to return to the landscape that was present in pre-settlement times. Some species have been extirpated, certain habitats eliminated, and wetland hydrology irreversibly altered. The Prairie Pothole Region, although sparsely populated, is one of the most intensively managed landscapes in North America. It will remain so despite talk of the Buffalo Commons.…