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 (PDF) who believe that landscapes like this one should be objects of awestruck contemplation, rather than pastures for cattle.
The notion that people living on the Plains should cede their land to bison is rooted in a deliberately heretical 1987 article in the academic magazine Planning, titled "The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust." Authored by professors Frank and Deborah Popper (he teaches at Princeton and Rutgers; she teaches at Princeton and the City University of New York), it suggested that a large portion of the Great Plains—comprising most of Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and parts of six other Western and Midwestern states—would become almost completely depopulated within a single generation, and should therefore be "returned to its original pre-white state," i.e., a bison range.
Gene Barnard, 92, has a 23,000 acre ranch within the proposed buffalo reserve and doesn't plan to sell it.The Poppers' proposal, which they called the "buffalo commons," struck many residents of the states in question as the very apogee of East Coast academic insanity, and few readers imagined that it would become a foundation of public policy in the West. Yet the couple's predictions are proving prescient. According to a 2009 Census report (PDF), nearly two-thirds of Great Plains counties declined in population between 1950 and 2007, with 69 of those counties losing more than half their people. As the people are leaving, the buffalo are multiplying. Major herds in Montana include the 3,900-head Yellowstone herd, the 6,000-head herd at Ted Turner's ranch on the Gallatin River, and the 400-head National Bison Range Herd near Flathead Lake, established by Congress at the turn of the 20th century to save the American bison from extinction.
Yet all of these efforts pale next to the APF's plan to create a reserve the size of Connecticut in this stretch of Montana—an expansive savannah that looks like parts of Africa and is capable of supporting many thousands of bison. The core of this proposed range is an area twice the size of Seattle where the APF's starter herd now resides. The foundation's strategy is to buy up local ranches in order to gain control over associated grazing leases on vast expanses of public land, with the goal of returning a wide area of Montana to something resembling its pre-European state at an estimated cost of $450 million. (The group has raised $40 million so far.) With sufficient land to roam and grass to eat, a bison herd will naturally double every four or five years. The estimated number of bison required to maintain sufficient genetic diversity within a herd is around 400, and the APF is already more than halfway there. In January 2010, it received 96 new bison from Canada, descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd, one of the last significant free-ranging bison populations in the United States.
"This land is cheap, it's for sale, and it's intact prairie," says Alison Fox, the APF staffer who brought me here. The county's population is roughly 40 percent (PDF) of its 1919 peak (PDF). The average rancher, Fox tells me, is 58 years old, and most people home-school their children because the schools are too few and far between. The people who make their lives in this environment are a special breed of individualists, but there are fewer and fewer of them, she says. That is why the bison are coming back.
BRYCE CHRISTENSEN is a huge, gentle, bald-headed man with a walrus mustache who spent more than three decades working for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, which was pretty much the dream job of every boy in Montana whose family didn't own a profitable ranch. Now he spends his days managing the APF reserve, checking on the animals, and removing fences and other relics of human habitation from the plains. "We got about 14,000 acres of pasture open to the bison now," he says, gesturing out at the range. "They'd like bigger, I think." While Christensen has removed about 15 miles of fence thus far, the herd is capable of traveling well beyond the current pasture boundary in a single day of grazing, which means that there is always more fencing to be taken down.
Bison are a keystone of an ecosystem that once included more than 1,500 species of plants, 350 birds, 220 butterflies, and 90 mammals. Mountain plovers use bison wallows as nesting sites. Bison keep trees from invading the open grasslands by scoring them with their horns, and they disperse seeds by eating and excreting them. When the bison die, they are eaten in turn by bald eagles, ravens, and black-billed magpies.
A ride across the prairie in Christensen's mud-caked Dodge truck reveals that this landscape is not as untouched as it looks. Every mile or so, we pass a man-made watering hole for cattle, which will eventually dry up or get choked out by invasive species. (See "Predator vs. Alien.") One of the dominant plants here is crested wheatgrass, a hardy Russian perennial that the US government introduced to the Plains in the 1930s for use as forage. "It's very challenging to get rid of crested," Christensen admits. The pretty yellow flowers are sweet clover, another imported species. "We're gonna do a series of 300- to 500-acre burns starting out by those trees," he explains. "After it burns, it will be low enough that the bison will eat it when the shoots come up."