To celebrate Earth Day, we ask, “Where do the buffalo roam?” Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison (airing April 26, check local listings) follows the American West’s relationship with the largest land mammal on the continent. In the early 19th century, 30 million buffalo inhabited the Great Plains, and the Native Americans revered them. But by 1890, bison had been completely eliminated from the plains. Although they have slowly been reintroduced to areas such as Yellowstone National Park, buffalo still don’t ramble wild in the West.
So where do the buffalo roam in 2012? And how have humans affected these iconic American creatures over the past 20 years?
- As shown in Facing the Storm, geographers Frank and Deborah Popper published a controversial paper in 1987 that argued for a 139,000-square-mile nature reserve called Buffalo Commons. “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust” predicted that the Great Plains would continue its human depopulation. Instead of letting that land go to waste, the Poppers argued, the wild buffalo population should be revitalized. At the time, the paper garnered heated reactions from the six affected states. Bodyguards ensured the Poppers’ safety at lectures, and the professors canceled a Montana event because of death threats.
- Now, some in the Great Plains are biting their tongues. Since the Poppers published their report, the human population in the plains has continued to decline, while buffalo numbers are on the rise.
- Projects such as the Great Plains Restoration Council and the American Prairie Foundation (AFP), a conservation group that buys land in the Great Plains, have brought the Poppers’ proposal to life. Since its inception in 2001, APF has purchased 123,000 acres of public or deeded land. It has also converted cattle grazing leases to permits in order to allow buffalo to graze. Some of those buffalo are direct descendants of herds from a herd that existed in northern Montana in the 1870s.
- Last year, the Poppers spoke about the Buffalo Commons at the Kansas Famers Union in Salina. “We never really expected it to have the impact it did and does,” Frank Popper told the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal. “We would have recoiled then that we would still be talking about it 23 years later.” He also said the largest land buyout could come from Kansas, as mentioned in Facing the Storm. After denouncing the Buffalo Commons idea initially, Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden endorsed it in a 1994 speech.
- Now, even wildlife have their own app. New smartphone applications help Yellowstone tourists locate wolves, bears, and bison, but some rangers worry that the apps might make it even more difficult to keep tourists at a safe distance from the capricious creatures.
- Buffalo are expanding their range. This March, 64 bison were transferred from Yellowstone National Park to Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation as part of a long-standing initiative to repopulate the animals in parts of the West.
- As bison strengthen in numbers, they are still routinely the subject of controversy. Bison ranchers were enraged this month when two news reports about the Yellowstone bison relocation suggested that bison livestock are interbred with cattle.
- Some of the Yellowstone herd have wandered west into ranch land slated to be home to cattle. Now state and federal official are weighing different methods of “hazing” the bison back into the park before they calve this Spring.
- On Earth Day this year, the first Yellowstone bison calf was born on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. As you can see in this picture, the calf has adorable bowed legs.
- File under stuff you probably didn’t know: Fermilab has its own bison herd.