NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665

August 17, 2000

Plains Folk: Buffalo Commons or Mammoth Savannah?

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.

I know this sounds goofy, because we are accustomed to thinking of grass and buffalo as the natural order of things on the plains, but that's because we've been locked into certain ways of thinking that are, well, bigoted. When Walter P. Webb published The Great Plains in 1931, he considered Plains Indians--"wild Indians," he called them--among the wild animals of the plains. He also considered them purely hunters and warriors, riding freely across the land.

Did you ever think, who took care of all those horses--some 10 mounts per hunter? 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.

And then what would we have? This is where it gets interesting. I guess you've read, as I have, that Russian scientists have chipped a woolly mammoth from a glacier and are intent on cloning the beast. We may be closer to Jurassic Park than we thought. You're thinking now I'm nuts, or at least off the subject, but I'm not.

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.

Had no humans arrived in America, then, the mammoth would still be here (as, indeed, President Jefferson expected when he sent out the Corps of Discovery). Forget buffalo--it's time to bring back the mammoth.

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. Wait a minute, we better think about this--I just remembered how the movie ended.


Source: Tom Isern, (701) 231-8339
Editor: Gary Moran, (701) 231-7865



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