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Where the Buffalo Roam

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

For all the effort required to restore the grasslands, perhaps the most challenging part of Christensen's job in this ecosystem is to establish friendly working relationships with the local ranchers, whose way of life the APF ever-so-gently aims to eliminate. "Many of them want to stay," he says when I ask him how the ranchers feel about selling their land. "If that changes, we would like to be seen as the buyer of choice."

The Phillips County News had been particularly vociferous in its opposition to the project. Christensen mentions a series of cartoons that depicted the APF as skylarking weirdos whose idea of progress was to take the country back to the 1850s. "Circle up the wagons, folks," editorialized a staff writer assigned to the story. "We're about to be overrun by a bunch of eastern based nature lovers herding buffalo onto our range." Christensen feels that the paper has let local passions get in the way of the facts. "I think the source of the fear," he says, "is that we are very open about our dreams of what this landscape will look like 25 years from now."

"Circle up the wagons, folks. We're about to be overrun by a bunch of eastern based nature lovers herding buffalo onto our range."

We climb a rise, and I encounter about 70 bison, old and young, disporting themselves on the beginnings of the reserve. A circle of huge bulls sits in the dirt, occasionally lifting their massive heads to survey the scene. The older bulls are distinguished by heavy beards and full bonnets. By comparison, the younger bulls look more like skinny hipsters from Williamsburg. A playful red calf, four to six weeks old, trails behind its mother, who is visiting with two other cows. Female calves remain with their mothers for up to three summers, while males leave earlier. "I think that's No. 5," Christensen says, pointing to a large cow that has a reputation for charging visitors.

Dragonflies flit through the tall grass as the air around them vibrates with the deep, resonant rumble of bison talking to each other about the weather, or whatever it is that they talk about. I notice that one of the calves has an injured leg and is trying to interest its mother in feeding it. "Would you help that animal?" I ask Christensen. "No," he answers shortly. "We did have a mother die in childbirth," he adds, after a pause. "Hey, that's nature." In the wildlife service, he might have shot a calf in the same predicament. "If you do shoot it," he says, "it's definitely going to die."

After half an hour of persistent effort, the limping calf convinces its mother that it's not about to die, and she decides to let it nurse, swishing her tail with what seems like mild annoyance for the first 30 seconds or so as the hungry calf suckles. Perhaps encouraged by the unexpected strength of the response, she stands patiently as the calf feeds. "These bison have just done phenomenal," Christensen says with evident satisfaction. "It's just great country."

WE WALK FOR A WHILE, our conversation punctuated by the crunch of dry grass underfoot and the gentle brushing of thistle, sage, and meadow foxtail (PDF)—yet another invasive species that will be hard to eradicate. The new bison from Canada are doing fine, Christensen says. I will be able to identify them by the letters "CAN" branded into their flesh, a condition imposed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help prevent the spread of disease from bison to cattle.

While technically classified (PDF) as livestock, bison are loathed by local ranchers, who worry that the animals might infect their cattle with anything from anthrax and mad cow disease to the dreaded bovine brucellosis, an infectious disease that causes cows to spontaneously abort their calves. The ranchers' antipathy stems from a fear of damage to their herds, and also from what the bison have come to represent—namely, the desire of conservationists to destroy their way of life in the pursuit of a whimsical dream of returning to an imagined Eden.

Bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer, circa 1870.: Burton Historical Collection/Detroit Public LibraryBison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer, circa 1870. Burton Historical Collection/Detroit Public LibraryThe local Native American tribes, especially the Gros Ventre on the nearby Fort Belknap reservation, support the APF but are also wary about embracing the idea of a vast bison reserve with too much enthusiasm. Those living on the reservation are sometimes employed by the ranchers, whose very recent ancestors exterminated the bison in an astonishingly short period of time thanks to the Sharps buffalo rifle, a weapon that could take down a bull (or a warrior on horseback) at a distance of 1,500 yards. In 1881, when the Northern Pacific railroad reached Miles City, Montana, the seat of Custer County, a commercial buffalo hunter named Vic Smith killed 4,500 bison in less than a year, getting three dollars apiece for their hides. If money was the primary motive for buffalo hunting, the destruction of the economic and cultural life of the Plains tribes to make way for white settlement was a close second. By 1886, there were hardly any bison left in Montana.

We get back into Christensen's truck and drive over to the Fort Peck Reservoir, formed by one of largest earthen dams in the world, a massive public project that displaced many of the ranchers here from their original landholdings on the Missouri River. As we sit on a high bluff looking down on the empty lake, Christensen ponders the future of the dream to which he has dedicated himself. The land will return to its natural, untouched state. Families might come and camp here and see what Lewis and Clark saw. We drive over to a ring of empty canvas yurts erected by the APF to host visitors. Among the recent guests was a group of Chinese conservation workers who slept out on the prairie and photographed bison with their new cameras.

A bank of hard gray clouds looms above the hills. I decide to watch the coming storm from inside the APF ranch house, which is furnished in comfortable Western style. I gaze out the living-room window at the high clouds shadowing low-slung power lines and a single gray metal Quonset hut. A tracing of a public map is laid out on a table by my side, next to a list of local ranchers and their landholdings. The map shows where each of their properties is located in relation to the reserve. It is an unsettling document, a roll call of families whose neighbors have long since given up on this inhospitable landscape: Kevin Cass, Gene Barnard, Bill French, and the Barthelness family, including Leo, Chris, Darla, and Leo Jr. Above my head is a handmade charm that contains a legend darkly etched in glass, which reads, "There's nothing like a dream to create a future."

MY READING for the evening is a journal article by a World Wildlife Fund staffer named Steve Forrest that lays out the innovative strategy on which the APF's approach to conservation is founded, and which brought the APF to Phillips County, where it has purchased 12 ranches to date. Whoever controls the ranches also controls the much larger tracts of grazing land that the ranchers lease from the Bureau of Land Management. Because these leases are tied to the ranch rather than the rancher, and because bison are the legal equivalent of cattle in the eyes of the USDA, each acre of ranchland the APF buys and stocks with bison turns into three acres of freshly minted nature park. Connect the private ranches and their leased BLM grazing lands with existing national parks and tribal lands, and a 3 million-acre grassland park is born.

Phillips County was chosen for this experiment because BLM lands comprise one-third of its land base, amounting to 1 million acres in a county with fewer than 4,000 residents (PDF). There are about 500 farms and ranch operations in the county, a manageable number given that these operations run a combined $1.7 million in the red, making it a buyer's market.

At the WWF offices in Bozeman before my trip, Steve Forrest told me that bison were, in fact, a late addition to the grand vision of a grasslands reserve. The idea of using the animals to anchor the park emerged from a 2006 meeting of about 50 conservationists and biologists at Ted Turner's ranch in New Mexico. Attendees produced a map of projected bison recovery on the Plains over the next 20, 50, and 100 years and issued what has become known as the Vermejo Statement, which reads (PDF) in part:

"Over the next century, the ecological recovery of the North American bison will occur when multiple large herds move freely across extensive landscapes within all major habitats of their historic range, interacting in ecologically significant ways with the fullest possible set of other native species, and inspiring, sustaining and connecting human cultures."

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