Great Plains Gone Wild
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Where the Buffalo Roam

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

The statement's origins, Forrest said, lay in the convergence of the WWF's work on grasslands with the work of the biologist Jim Derr at Texas A&M University. Forrest nods and smiles when I mention the Poppers, but he is quick to claim that they had little to do with the practical side of building a large-scale conservation project on the prairie—a fact that, while true, is also a way of eliding the politically damaging connection to a couple whose names have become a byword for the notion that humans are less important than bison. Derr concluded (PDF) that many of the wild bison in conservation herds lacked sufficient genetic purity to pass on the pristine bison genome. The introgression of cattle genes into bison herds can be the product of the deliberate cross-breeding of bison and cattle for commercial purposes, or it can happen naturally. Either way, many wild bison in the fabled conservation herds were, by the standards of the purists, hardly bison at all.

At Turner's ranch, Derr presented his findings (PDF) to an audience that Forrest describes as "anyone who had any bison weight at all." The meeting, held in a gorgeous Spanish-style lodge once owned by the Pennzoil Company, was hosted by the Turner Foundation. "Ted was suddenly very interested, because one of the herds tested that did not have cattle DNA was his herd," Forrest explains. "The message was that we could lose wild bison. It was critical." Turner himself attended some of the sessions along with his head rancher Marv Jensen. After the sessions, the attendees dined on bison steak and plotted out a practical path to making their dream a reality.

The population of Phillips County peaked in 1919. It has since declined by nearly 60 percent.The population of Phillips County peaked in 1919. It has since declined by nearly 60 percent.As the largest mammal native to North America, bison are "charismatic megafauna" capable of attracting human backing for conservation in a way that, say, prairie dogs can't. The bison's physical charisma, its place in the American historical imagination, and its role in the prairie ecosystem—not to mention its legal status as a type of cow—made it the perfect anchor for the grassland park the WWF hoped to establish.

Forrest sees the landscapes he seeks to preserve as being very much like great works of art. "It's not like we are creating this for some alien race to appreciate later," he told me, drumming his fingers on a wooden conference table. "We take out a few fences, we knock out a few power poles, and that's it: That's what the first humans saw when they stood on a tall peak looking down at the valley. That is a really compelling, spiritually important thing that we need." Through such visions, Forrest says, human beings can be brought to appreciate their connectedness to other organisms and to a larger ecosystem—a conservationist's version of the emotions that animate our romantic attachments to art and religion.

The fact that Forrest's plan pushes this aesthetic of harmonious interconnectedness by means of old-fashioned legal and political leverage and donations from wealthy benefactors has not been lost on some residents of Phillips County. For ranchers, the creation of a buffalo commons is not an act of restorative devotion but the forced transformation of the farms and ranchlands to which they and their families have devoted decades of toil.

The APF's cause was not helped by the appearance of a Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks manager named Arnie Dood at the annual meeting of the Phillips County Livestock Association last June. According to the Phillips County News, Dood told the ranchers they could "either be a part of setting what the future is going to look like" or they could sit around and complain; he added that "people are xenophobic in Central Montana." (Dood denies making the comment. "What does that word mean?" he asks, laughing.) The paper also ran a cartoon depicting a city slicker seated on the rear end of a sleeping bison, heading toward the year 1850; he holds a pamphlet bearing the initials "WWF," "APF," and "PETA." In editorials, articles, and letters, the News and its readers gleefully attacked the APF from every angle—fears that the buffalo would infect people's cattle with brucellosis, elitism of reserve proponents, the return of wolves to the prairie. (See story below.) In one of many angry letters to the editor, retired wildlife biologist Jack D. Jones railed against the influence of "global organizations like the WWF" and warned that "this could be shoved down our throats, like 'Obamacare.'"

The paper covered one meeting where more than 200 county residents aired their fears. Among them was Rose Stoneberg, a local activist and landowner who warned that the APF would try to get the land through monument designation rather than paying landowners. Maxine Korman, another local, was paraphrased by the paper explaining that the grasslands plan was only a small part of "an apparent United Nations project designed at creating a wildlands refuge extending from the Yucatan to the Yukon." At another public meeting, the News noted, someone proposed a vote on the idea of allowing free-roaming bison onto the Plains. The tally was 92 against, zero in favor.

GENE BARNARD, a fit 92-year-old rancher whose spread is part of the proposed reserve, lives next door to the APF base camp in a group of houses inhabited by family members, dogs, trucks, and old machinery. He knows as much about Phillips County as anyone alive. Since he was born here in 1918, the county's population (PDF) has declined (PDF) by almost 60 percent.

When I get out of my truck inside Barnard's family compound, I am surrounded by a pack of five barking dogs who hold me at bay until the rancher's son-in-law, Jerry Mahan, arrives to rescue me. A tall man with long sideburns and sun-frazzled hair, he wears a frayed army jacket, sunglasses, and jeans, all seeming better suited to a crisp fall day than to the current 98-degree heat. In addition to giving him a certain resemblance to the late Hunter S. Thompson, the layers protect him from the swarms of dive-bombing mosquitoes that breed in the gullies after it rains. When I suggest that driving on the badly rutted dirt roads must be especially difficult during the brief wet season, he nods. "Three feet of gumbo and 800 feet of sand," he says, jerking his thumb towards the road, and then nodding towards the open prairie beyond. "We've taken three people out in body bags. This country isn't forgiving."

"We've taken three people out in body bags. This country isn't forgiving."

He walks me to the door of the small clapboard house where Gene Barnard is awaiting my visit at a kitchen table piled high with newspapers and ketchup bottles. He rises to greet me, then bends down to chase a pair of yapping dogs with a plastic fly swatter. He apologizes and offers me a seat. His parents came to Montana before the First World War, he says, lured by the promise of bountiful land. "The Great Northern Railway, they put out advertisements everywhere. Grain this high," he chuckles, holding up his hand to the level of his chest. "It didn't take too long to find out, coming out here from places with 20 to 30 inches of rain, that 10 inches was the short end of the stick."

Barnard's father, two uncles, and a brother-in-law migrated from Virginia to North Dakota to Montana, and his father took a job as a teacher before filing a claim on some upland pasture. When I ask why his father claimed such undesirable land, he tells me that he had the same question. "I asked him, 'My God, when there's all this lowland, why'd you file on upland?'" Barnard remembers. "He said the sheep was eating it off, it was all green then."

The family ranch eventually grew to 23,000 acres, but life was always hard. As a boy, Barnard remembers being sent out to pick beans and gooseberries and to weed the garden before breakfast. When he was 10 years old, he managed a team of horses and mowed hay. The days were long, and after dinner the family generally went straight to bed. It wasn't until his family purchased an Aladdin lamp in the 1930s, he says, that reading was possible after dark. "They advertised it on the radio station we got from Salt Lake City," he remembers with a laugh. "They said, 'You can tell a fly from a raisin.'"

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