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Where the Buffalo Roam

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North and South Dakota may be better associated with blustery temps and the big, empty prairies of Laura Ingalls Wilder than, say, appealing vacation spots. But au contraire: pockets of the Midwest are reverting to their natural state with a new emphasis on land conservation, eco-tourism, and recreational ranches. Much of these efforts are focused on, of all things, bison, a species once nearly extinct that now boasts herds half a million strong in North America. And who doesn’t secretly long to roam free with the buffalo?

According to USA Today, “The private sector, state and local governments and non-profit groups are pouring money into preserving land and returning it to wildlife. Small towns are still dying, but economic enterprises are emerging from this environmental effort—from bison and dried-fruit snacks produced by Native Americans in South Dakota to Lewis and Clark Trail motorcoach tours in Nebraska.”

New Jersey sociologists Frank and Deborah Popper first introduced the concept known as the Buffalo Commons back in 1987, arguing that the best use for the Great Plains was in its pristine condition and supporting federal buyouts of private property to create a nature preserve for free-roaming bison. The agricultural community protested the idea with so much vigor that the Poppers—and their vision—eventually retreated into the tall grass.

Even so, Buffalo Commons has emerged with a little help from the Great Plains Restoration Council as well as CNN founder Ted Turner, who owns 2 million acres of land and 15 ranches in seven states. Turner’s properties are used for bison ranching, commercial fishing and hunting, limited and sustainable timber harvesting, and biodiversity conservation. Plus, he started Ted’s Montana Grill, a restaurant chain in 18 states, featuring naturally-raised bison meat and all-American comfort foods, that aims to straddle the line between ecologically sensitive and commercially sustainable.

Other eco-tourism initiatives in the Midwest include birding safaris through the Badlands in North Dakota and scores of prairie preserves across the nation.

Kudos to Great Plains dwellers for finding a creative remedy to their dwindling populations with economic—and more important to us, environmental—benefits. IT’s pioneer within can hardly wait to feast its eyes on the ever-expanding herds of buffalo.

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