Back in September, I blogged about the concept of the Buffalo Commons, whose goal was to revert the Great Plains to its pristine condition by creating a nature preserve for free-roaming bison. So when I read a recent article in the New York Times about this very topic, I was delighted to discover the eco-initiative has continued to gather momentum over the past several months.
The NYT reports:
The lions won’t be arriving anytime soon, but travel operators have already come, to take advantage of the return of the wild. “When my wife and I first started, two decades ago, we were one of only two operators in the state,” said John Hanson, owner of the Logging Camp Ranch in Bowman, N.D. “Now there are thousands.”
NYT suggests some highlights among the “thousands” of eco-operators, like Off the Beaten Path. Based in Bozeman, Montana, the outfitter offers guided, seven-day trips through the Dakotas, where travelers visit a working bison ranch to learn from bison rancher and author Dan O’Brien (in addition to indulging in a can’t-get-fresher-than-this barbecue).
Many outfitters in the upper Midwest are taking a cue from African bush camps. The American Prairie Foundation leads safaris
across its own preserved land, which even include jetting across the prairie in a private plane (or click here to download a self-guided auto tour).
Backcountry jeep safaris in South Dakota’s Custer State Park herd visitors within steps of bison, all the while educating them about the species. Check out their annual Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival, held this year Sept. 27–29, when you can witness 1,400 buffalo driven into corrals, gorge yourself at a pancake feed and chili cookoff, browse craft exhibits featuring the artwork of local artisans, and experience Western and Native American entertainment.
Most fascinating to me was the fact that apparently sighting bison happens regularly these days, private jet or not. “Even without the jeep rides,” NYT reporter Joshua Kurlantzick writes, “it’s hard to miss the bison. On one trip to Custer State Park, I woke in the early morning, walked out of my tent, and stumbled into a group of bison ambling slowly across the road.”
Kurlantzick is also quick to point out, however, that the Midwest is not yet capable of providing pampering that has come to be expected of the “rhino-by-day, Riesling-by-night” African safari camps. But Plains advocates understand that’s precisely the appeal. “The most incredible thing is, if you want to experience the Great Plains the way it was in the 19th century, you can still have that experience,” explained Ted Lee Eubanks (chief executive of eco-tourism company Fermata) to the NYT. “You can still stand right in the wagon ruts from that time.”
Photo: Charles G. Summers, Jr.