Monday, April 8, 2013

Bring Back the Buffalo

The western plains of the US are witnessing an impressive boom in the growth of ghost towns (6,000 just in Kansas).  Lands having less than two people per square mile are classified as frontier.  In the 1990 census, 133 western counties were frontier.  The area of these counties is one quarter of the land in the lower 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).  The population of the plains peaked in 1920, and has been declining since.  An area that once may have supported 25,000 Indian buffalo hunters now supports 10,000 Americans.  The population is aging, because young folks tend to leave, and there is little to attract newcomers.

Ernest Callenbach, the author of Ecotopia, is a green dreamer.  His book, Bring Back the Buffalo, presents us with a vision for healing the plains.  For 500 years, the European invaders have done an impressive job of ravaging America’s ecosystems, but the plains are less wrecked than the rest of the nation.  Therefore, the plains would be the easiest region to return to a genuinely sustainable way of life.  So, what are we waiting for?

Well, more than a few folks have little affection for green dreamers.  The plains are home to God-fearing, government hating, ultra-conservatives.  Yet the economy of the region is kept on life support via a golden shower of generous government subsidies (welfare!).  Only fools with high principles question this paradox, and they are promptly bounced out of the saloon.

The government pays farmers not to till 26 million acres (10.5m ha) of highly erodible land.  In North Dakota, 80 percent of net farm income comes from subsidies.  Dry climate trends have been limiting farm productivity, and irrigated farming is on a dead end road, because underground aquifers are in the process of being emptied.

Public lands are leased to ranchers at bargain rates, typically 20 percent of the fair market price.  Grazing is not carefully managed, and both public and private lands are generally degraded.  The current system is a dead end road.  Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service routinely sells timber on public lands at prices far below cost.

Thanks to the General Mining Act of 1872, mining corporations can buy public land for $5 an acre, extract billions of dollars in minerals, pay no royalties to the public, and leave behind toxic messes for the public to clean up at enormous expense.  The latest technology is heap leach mining, which enables corporations to make a profit by extracting one ounce of gold from 60 tons of rock.  Crushed ore is piled up, and toxic cyanide is dumped on the pile.  The cyanide extracts gold, and some of it is collected at the bottom of the heap and then processed.  Thousands of birds are killed by landing on poison lakes.  If only humankind was able to survive without gold.

So, on the plains, like everywhere else in America, profits are privatized, and risks are socialized.  The net result is that taxpayers are subsidizing the destruction of the plains ecosystem.  But there are fools with high principles who question the wisdom of this.  For example, in a 1987 essay, demographers Frank and Deborah Popper proposed creation of the Buffalo Commons.  They needed bodyguards at public appearances in the early days, but the accuracy of their predictions, and the logic of their recommendations are gradually gaining respect.

Lynn Jacobs, author of the fiery Waste of the West, recommended that the government simply buy out the ranchers.  In the long run, it would be cheaper than subsidizing them to raise cattle and damage the range.  Public lands produce just two percent of America’s meat.  We could create an open range for buffalo once again, and this would benefit the health of both the grassland and the meat-eaters.  Grass-fed buffalo meat is low in fat, high in iron, and free of hormones and antibiotics.

Buffalo are amazing critters.  Bulls can weigh a ton, and cows more than a half ton.  In a five-mile race (8 km), they can outrun any horse, and they can sprint up to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h).  Their average lifespan is 12 to 15 years, but some live to 40.  They are perfectly attuned for living in semi-arid grasslands.  Unlike cattle, they can go several days without water.  They can remain healthy on a diet of grass.  They can survive blast-freezer winters without shelters or supplemental feed.  They give birth to their calves without human assistance.  They live wonderfully without managers!

Cattle tend to remain close to water, overgraze, and damage the banks of the streams (riparian areas).  Grazing buffalo keep moving, at something like a walking pace.  On the open range, they would eat and move on, and they might not return to that location for several years.  The result was healthy grassland, healthy riparian areas, healthy herds of buffalo, and healthy tribes of Indians.

Having been bred for passivity, cattle and sheep are easy prey, so ranchers have developed a passion for exterminating predators.  The poisons used by the Animal Damage Control (ADC) program kill twice as many cattle and calves as predators do.  Countless numbers of wild animals have been murdered in order to make the world safe for livestock.  Buffalo are far less vulnerable to predators, because they’re wild, fast, strong, smart, and dangerous.

Countless millions of prairie dogs have been killed, because cattle have a tendency to step into their holes and break their legs.  Buffalo, on the other hand, have learned the important skill of not stepping into holes.  Also, prairie dogs dine on vegetation, leaving less for the livestock to convert into profits — death to all freeloaders!

A primary obstacle to creating the Buffalo Commons is that the traditional mindset of the plains has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea of greatly expanding public lands, removing the fences, evicting the cattle, and letting the wild ecosystem heal — allowing the wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and prairie dogs to return, and happily live in peace.

There’s an even wilder idea.  The government swiped lots of Indian land and gave it to settlers, so it could be put to “higher use.”  Since whites have a hard time surviving on the land without subsidies from outsiders, the land should be returned to the tribes and the wildlife.

Callenbach understands that a “sustainable” system is one that will function smoothly for “several thousand years.”  But in his zeal to sell us on a sustainable future for the grasslands, he gets a bit sloppy with the notion of sustainability.  He recommends promoting a tourism industry to bring urban people from distant lands to marvel at the herds of buffalo.  How will visitors travel to buffalo country?

He recommends constructing many wind turbines on the range.  Wind turbines are industrial products that cannot be made in the backyard with local materials.  The existence of industrial civilization is required for the maintenance and replacement of wind turbines, and the electrical grid.  He also suggests harvesting biomass from the range and using it to generate energy.

He envisions harvesting the buffalo, and exporting their meat and hides to other regions, to generate profits in a cash economy.  The old Indian system was far less risky.  Tribes simply killed what they needed, and left the rest alone.  All tribes had access to buffalo, so there was no motivation to trade, raid, or hoard.  The tribes got along just fine without creating a meat industry, or investing in power plants — and they are still suffering from when the crazy white tourists came to visit.  The tribes understood how to live with the land, as simply as possible.

Callenbach, Ernest, Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains, Island Press, Washington, 1996.


Gary G. said...

When people speak of rewilding, I'm not always sure what they mean. Bringing the buffalo back to the Great Painns, along with the Indians and their othetr predators,offers the best example of rewilding I've seen yet.

What Is Sustainable said...

Gary, maybe rewilding refers to an inner journey, too. We were all born as wild animals, but then we were tamed by our nannies and tutors. Maybe it's about throwing off some chains.

Riversong said...

Rewilding the Great Plains is a wonderful, and necessary, idea which will not come to fruition until the demise of industrial civilization and the American myth. Modern America has far too much invested in the prairie way of life to abandon it.

Neolithic Americans were hardly the "noble savages" of myth. There were a number of sites, such as Ulm Pishkun Buffalo Jump in Montana which has compacted buffalo bones 13 feet deep stretching for the mile width of the cliffs. The difference between then and now is that there were so many more buffalo than humans that such mass slaughter was hardly noticed.

While indigenous Americans had walked the plains with their dogs since the end of the last ice age, the Cheyenne, the Sioux and the Arapaho whom we think of as the great buffalo-hunters were refugees from the invaded East, obliged to take up buffalo hunting when their farmland had been overrun by whites. When the first horse appeared in the eighteenth century, the Plains Indians quickly became skilled on horseback, and began trading buffalo meat for corn and guns.

The Sharp rifle, the Gattling gun and the steam locomotive brought the European settlers to the plains. The decisive weapon, however, was a new tanning process, perfected in 1871. Buffalo leather suddenly became part of the world economy, prized for machinery belts and army boots. The US government realized it could subdue the plains tribes by letting freelance hunters kill off their food supply. Whites with repeating rifles wiped out the buffalo herds – perhaps 30 million animals – in just ten years, taking the hides and leaving the flesh to rot. By 1890, when the frontier officially closed, only a few hundred buffalo were left.

The open range was soon diced into farmland by the invention of barbed wire. The same Mr. Gattling whose gun mowed down the Sioux also made farm machinery and the first steam plow, which enabled the tough plains sod to be turned over and turned to dust in the drought of the Dirty Thirties. Like the tropical rainforest, which has most of its fertility tied up in the trees and little in the soil, the fertility of the Great Plains was in its grass. Ten thousand years of matted sod was "busted" and turned the plains into a dust bowl when the rains gave out.

But the frontier West still nurtures the worst of the American culture. Backwoods America clings to its fundamentalism and its firearms because they are the foundations of the pioneering myth of free soil and free men. These are people who will give up their way of life only when "it's pried out of their cold dead hands".

Anonymous said...

"Free men" and "individualism" isn't a myth, it is a typical Egalitarian Non-State society's lifeway.

Christiopher Boehm observes that Egalitarian Non-State lifeways are characterized by people who "remain politically autonomous as individuals."[1]

Elman Service notes that, "Historically, people in non-state societies are relatively autonomous and sovereign. They generate their own subsistence with little or no assistance from outside sources. They bow to no external political leaders."[2]

Also, the European settlers, who observed and greatly admired the Egalitarian lifeways of the "autonomous" and "sovereign" individuals whom they encountered among the Eastern Woodlands Indians, and wanted to imitate their sociopolitical Egalitarian Power-Sharing.[3] This paleolithic Egalitarian Power-Sharing lifeway was preserved in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Yours is an Progressivist[4] arrogance, and is the worst of the American culture. You and your elitist murderers pried firearms—at Wounded Knee and other massacres—from the cold dead hands of "free men" you mock and despise.[5]

[1] Elman Service (1975) Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. Norton.
[2] Christopher Boehm (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.
[3] James Axtell (1986) The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. Oxford University Press.
[4] Jared Diamond (May 1987) Agriculture: The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race. Discover Magazine.
[5] David Stannard (1992) American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford University Press.

Anonymous said...

Richard, if we can't bring back the buffalo in Ohio, where they once roamed in the Oak Savannah of NW Ohio, at least we can try the grass-fed grazing like you advocate.

I'm doing it with a breed that hasn't been ruined these last 70 years by breeding for feedlot efficiency. Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia (buffalo ranged as far east as Virginia) is a great help.

It's better than nutrient-mining the soil like I learned to do at OSU. And it is way more enjoyable looking at green grass growing right now, rather than ugly brown cornstalks.

If anybody thinks grassfed without corn is impossible, I raised a bull (leaner than a steer, wanted to experiment with getting closer to a buffalo flavor) in 17 months to 1060 lbs, zero grain. With grain getting so expensive, and being used for fuel, folks are starting to call and visit and ask about getting grassland planted.

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, you may very well be right that we’ll hang on to cattle until the end of the show. In my role as educator, I wanted to show that cattle and sheep were not well-suited for life on the plains, and that some “grass-fed beef” comes with ecological baggage.

I looked at a coffee table book called Welfare Ranching. The photography really hammered home the notion that ranching ravages the range.

I learned a lot about buffalo jumps recently. There were quite a few. One source said that the Indians deliberately ran ALL the buffalo off the cliff, because any that survived would make other buffalo wary of this scam. The Wiki article on the Head-Smashed-In jump in Alberta, Canada reported that the bones there were 39 feet deep. This may have been the result of thousands of years of use.

I used to believe that Native Americans were pure and perfect in every way. That was a popular meme a while back. But this land was certainly in far, far better shape before 1492. Compared to the Europeans, their sins seem trivial.

What Is Sustainable said...

Brian, that's a nice looking pasture. I presume that grass-fed also sells for a better price. Thanks!