Saturday, September 3, 2011

Rewilding the West

Richard Manning is a visionary thinker and writer who lives in Montana, and I am especially fond of his work.  His book Rewilding the West contemplates the notion of removing the fences, cattle, and sheep from western ranching regions, and allowing the original wild ecosystem to recover — buffalo, wolves, prairie dogs, and every other wild critter native to the land.
Wild salmon used to feed many cultures around the world.  The seas produced abundant fish, with no human management whatsoever.  On the other hand, farmed salmon are a disaster.  Nature does an excellent job of raising fish, but aquaculture corporations do not.  In a similar vein, nature’s design for producing wild buffalo was brilliant.  But the imported and artificial system of raising domesticated cattle and sheep on the western plains is dysfunctional and destructive. 
Long ago, the artist George Catlin spent time among the buffalo-hunting Indian tribes.  He reported that they were very healthy, long-lived, and happy people.  He repeatedly commented on how tall they were.  The Indians enjoyed a way of life that was in balance with nature, until they acquired domesticated horses.  Mounted hunters were able to kill more buffalo, and they did, which brought an end to sustainable living — even before the robe trade business began, which greatly increased the slaughter. 
Once the buffalo were exterminated, in came the ranchers.  Cattle evolved to thrive in the milder and wetter ecosystems of Europe.  In the West, they did OK in moist years, but died like flies during droughts and extreme winters.  Cattle grazed more intensively than the native buffalo, causing serious damage to the grasslands.
Garrett Hardin is famous for his essay The Tragedy of the Commons, which argued that people take better care of privately-owned lands than they do of commons, because of rational self-interest, and the ability to control access.  But this was not true in buffalo country, where the grasses thrived under occasional grazing, but got thrashed under repetitive grazing, when the cattle and fences arrived. 
In the West, private property does not work.  Agriculture in Montana is heavily dependent on life support from government subsidies, whilst the political climate is tilted toward a flag-waving anti-government conservatism that cries for smaller government, lower taxes, and a never-ending stream of generous subsidy checks.  Manning concludes: “The American West is a welfare state.  We privatize profits and socialize risks.  We are parasites.”
In the good old days of sustainability, 30 million wild buffalo thrived on the grasslands in a state of relative balance.  Today, they have been replaced with 30 million cattle, which depend on huge subsidies of corn, grown on subsidized farms in the Midwest, which are destroying precious topsoil, and poisoning precious aquatic ecosystems with their chemical runoffs. 
In Manning’s opinion, “agriculture is by far our most destructive activity, because agriculture is fundamentally unsustainable.”  Hunting and fishing can be absolutely sustainable if it is restricted by a system of rules and regulations (or rational self-control).  But no rules can make agriculture sustainable.
Having set the stage, Manning now directs us to contemplate a far more intelligent alternative.  “So what would happen if you gave those ranchers the right to sell that wild protein, first by charging sport hunters, but second by market hunting to cull the does and smaller deer the sport hunters don't take?  What if wildlife became more lucrative than cows?  What if ranching had every financial incentive to restore habitat, remove cows, and live among wildlife?”
The vision is to create a prairie preserve larger than Yellowstone Park, a home where wild bison, elk, bears, and wolves can run free — the American Prairie Reserve, located in north central Montana, in the region of the Missouri Breaks, beside the Missouri River ("Breaks” means the edge of the plains).  The project was launched in 2005, on a small scale, with big dreams for the future.

Mannning, Richard, Rewilding the West — Restoration in a Prairie Landscape, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009.  I would also recommend two other Manning books: Against the Grain and Grassland.


Unknown said...

I have two of Richard Manning's books...Grassland and Against the Grain. Rewilding the West should be arriving any day now. Can't wait to read it. He's a great author who has truly inspired me to want to learn more and get involved in some way in restoring our natural grasslands where the buffalo will roam once more.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Unknown! I agree, Manning has written some great books.

You might also want to look at Bring Back the Buffalo by Ernest Callenbach.