Skip to main content

Re-wilding May Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam—Again

A video report in The New York Times showed efforts to reintroduce the largest animal in Europe, which was hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century. Recently, eight European bison were released into the German wild. This tiny herd has produced two calves and had one death, so their number now stands at nine. Yet even that tiny contingent is being protested by neighboring landowners who claim the bison have damaged trees and trampled crops and may carry diseases. Sound familiar?

American Indians are veterans of the struggle to pull the American bison back from near extinction, the difference in North America being that the extinction was man-made and purposeful. Gen. Philip Sheridan famously stated the motive: “You kill the buffalo, you destroy the Indian’s commissary.”

And so the colonists attacked the giant herbivores with repeating rifles, stripped off their hides and left tall stacks of malodorous meat to rot on the prairies until the iconic beasts were reduced by nature’s scavengers to piles of bones. The population of American bison has been estimated by biologists at 60 million in 1492. By the end of the shooting part of the Indian wars in 1890, that population was reduced to 750.

At first contact with the colonists, my Cherokee people hunted bison, which ranged all the way from the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast, although buffalo never took the central role in our culture it did for the Plains Indians. Our bogus removal treaty, New Echota, contained usufruct over a tract of land west of our reservation and just south of the Kansas border for the express purpose of buffalo hunting, a purpose that became superfluous with the near-extinction of the buffalo.

While the American bison nearly succumbed as collateral damage in the Indian wars, the European bison was brought to the brink by overhunting and habitat destruction at around the same time. One of the bison’s major benefactors is Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, who helped bring back the bison on his 32,000-acre expanse of family property in Bad Berleburg, Germany. We might call Prince Richard the Ted Turner of Europe, except that the 75-year-old American billionaire, who keeps 55,000 bison on ranches spread across seven states, wishes to introduce modern Americans to the delights of buffalo meat, and the German prince just wants to preserve the species.

The European bison benefits from “re-wilding,” an organized attempt in Europe to recreate lost ecosystems by reverse engineering. On the most simple level, re-wilders restore big animals at the top of the food chain and watch the effects cascade down. On a more complex level, where few can tread, there are efforts to recreate extinct species by selective breeding for primitive traits to reverse evolution or by directly altering genetic material. The Re-wilding Europe Foundation hopes to return 2.4 million acres to pre-Homo sapiens standards by concentrating on farmland that is becoming economically unsustainable.

The striking parallels between restoration of the bison in Europe and in North America are the first clues that the movement is worldwide, just as habitat destruction has been worldwide. In Great Britain, the re-wilding movement was brought to higher visibility last year by George Monbiot’s new book, Feral: Re-wilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life. Monbiot is more reporter than scientist, and so speaks to the broader audience that is necessary to give the idea political legs.

With Monbiot’s book and Prince Richard’s release of European bison, it’s easy to mistake re-wilding for a purely European phenomenon, which would make sense in light of the numbers of species Europe has lost to human being infestation, overhunting and habitat destruction. In fact, the re-wilding partnership between science and popular culture is international in scope and very robust in the United States. The home base of the Re-wilding Institute is in Albuquerque.

North America’s Feral would be Dave Foreman’s Re-wilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, published in 2004. While the movement is worldwide, the goal is the same: restoration of lost or threatened ecosystems from the top down, because preserving the creatures at the top of the food chain carries along the animals and plants that surrounded what used to be the dominant species.

The need for a sizeable protected habitat means that re-wilding often starts with a rich person—a Prince Richard or a Ted Turner---for proof of concept, before governments become involved. The size of the undertaking does require government or governments because sufficient habitat is seldom in private hands, as several examples show:

Scroll to Continue

Read More

*Returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. needed the national park because wolves, unlike bison, won’t help a rich guy start a chain of steakhouses.

*Returning whales to the top of the food chain in the oceans is impossible without the International Whaling Commission, which would have to be invented if it did not exist.

*Recreating, by reverse genetic engineering, the aurochs, extinct since the 17th century, and releasing it on a huge wildlife reserve on the border of Spain and Portugal.

*Preserving an animal as sacred to many indigenous peoples as the American bison, the jaguar, in Sonora, Mexico.

The preservation of the jaguar brings together a long list of conservation organizations, private and governmental, in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as universities on both sides of the border. Preservation becomes possible because prime jaguar habitat land is lightly populated and therefore inexpensive to acquire. The primary human activity in the area is cattle ranching, and at some point ranchers will no doubt complain about jaguars taking their calves, a complaint that complicates efforts to protect mountain lions in the U.S.

It’s in North America that other animals sacred to many indigenous peoples, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the woodlands bison (Bison bison athabascae) are at the center of a bison restoration parallel in time with the European restoration but over a much greater land area. The two American bison subspecies combined once ranged the Great Plains and much of the woodlands from Canada to Mexico, and remnant herds survive in the national and tribal reserves of all three colonial countries. The superiority of bison meat to beef has led to interbreeding with domestic cattle as an additional modern threat to survival of the creature that, under the technical misnomer buffalo, has become an iconic symbol of the Old West, as American as the buffalo nickel.

The American bison are at the center of the most ambitious re-wilding project in the world, the Buffalo Commons. The idea originated, if you don’t count the prophecies of Plains Indian elders, in a 1987 essay published in Planning by Deborah and Frank Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust.”

The Poppers wrote that the intense farming and ranching of the Great Plains is not sustainable and that climate change will make it even less so. They point to the Dust Bowl era in the past and the rapid depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in the present to argue that people have left and are continuing to leave out of economic necessity. Much of the land is already under the population level that used to define the end of the “frontier,” six persons per square mile. The heart of the Buffalo Commons proposal is that the government should roll with the punches Mother Earth is throwing and return the land to prairie grasses and wildlife that do not require irrigation:

We believe that despite history's warnings and environmentalists' proposals, much of the Plains will inexorably suffer near-total desertion over the next generation. It will come slowly to most places, quickly to some; parts of Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Texas, especially those away from the interstates, strike us as likely candidates for rapid depopulation. The overall desertion will largely run its course. At that point, the only way to keep the Plains from turning into an utter wasteland, an American Empty Quarter, will be for the federal government to step in and buy the land -- in short, to deprivatize it.

Indians are unlikely to ever join an exodus from lands they consider sacred and many Indians who have stayed have become unfortunately used to economic hardship. Tribal organizations have been key to preserving the buffalo to date, and the Intertribal Buffalo Council now counts 56 tribes keeping over 15,000 bison. Some, if not all, of this tribal activity is driven by what Mark Tilsen, President of Native American Natural Foods, calls “Tanka Vision,” defined as “a modern, buffalo-based economy.”

This method of re-wilding the Great Plains does not conflict with the idea of reintroducing the species at the top of the food chain to recreate the interdependent ecosystem that sustained that species. The top of the food chain on the Great Plains was the American Indian, and the key to the ecosystem that sustained him was the American bison.