Buffalo Commons

  • Buffalo

Twenty years ago, academics Frank and Deborah Popper wrote what they thought would be a little-noticed, four page article subtitled “A Daring Proposal for Dealing with an Inevitable Disaster,” which argued that current agricultural use of much of the Great Plains is simply not sustainable. They advocated for a “Buffalo Commons,” a return of large tracts of land back to native species, including buffalo, and a revisioned economy that encouraged ecotourism. To the Poppers’ surprise, their conclusions ignited a firestorm among residents, who labelled the Poppers as East Coast heretics. But over the past two decades, the couple’s predictions have seemed more and more prophetic. Plains states have suffered dramatic population loss, and families have sold or even abandoned farms and cattle ranches through the region. The situation is particularly difficult in northeastern Montana, where Long Haul spoke with lifelong residents about a current plan very similar in spirit to the one the Poppers proposed in 1987. There, outsiders are purchasing large tracts of land with plans to reintroduce thousands of bison and other native species, restoring a pre-settlement landscape. Most residents don’t welcome the change – and those that embrace it, like South Dakotan Sam Hurst, are being forced to sell before their buffalo dreams can become reality. Sam