No Home on the Range: Climate Change and the Future of the Buffalo Commons

DSC_0119In 1987, geographers Frank and Deborah Popper wrote their now-famous “Buffalo Commons” article. In the article, published in December of that year in “Planning” magazine under the title “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” The Poppers argued that the interplay of environmental, economic, and demographic variables would foster the eventual formation of a “Buffalo Commons” across remote, depopulated segments of the American Great Plains.  This “Commons” would consist of large bison herds, which according to the Poppers represented the most environmentally sustainable and economically viable use of the semi-arid grassland regions of the continental United States.

Yet, over twenty-five after the publication of the widely-read article, it is now evident that the Poppers’ vision of the Great Plains will never come to pass.  Three environmental factors (all related to climate change) guarantee that the Buffalo Commons will remain only a theory rather than an actual means of organizing the Great Plains environment and economy.

1. A Warmer and Drier Climate. Scientists have concluded that the western regions of the Great Plains, which includes many areas examined by the Poppers, are becoming drier and warmer.  In the last century, the plains have warmed between three and four degrees Fahrenheit.  This warming will continue.  As climate change accelerates, portions of the western plains will experience more frequent drought episodes, which translates into less forage for bison.  Forage is the single greatest determinant of herd size and survivability.  The sparseness of forage across the western plains will limit, or completely impede, the reintroduction of bison to their former range.  Put simply, desertification stemming from climate change will forestall a Buffalo Commons.  You can’t have bison without grass.

2. The Dwindling Water Resource.  As the western Great Plains heats up and annual precipitation amounts decline, rivers will carry less water, reservoirs, wetlands, stock ponds, and glacial potholes will no longer fill to capacity, and the Ogallala Aquifer will be tapped out of existence. In the new American desert that emerges, the Great Plains’ dominant species, Homo Sapiens Americanus (which is a particularly large subspecies of Homo Sapiens) will increasingly monopolize the area’s depleted water resources, leaving little or none for other lifeforms. Without water, bison will have no place on the plains.

3. The Absence of the Region’s Former Oases. The third, and most important, reason the Buffalo Commons idea will forever remain the pipe dream of the Environmental Left is tied to the first and second reasons. Homo Sapiens occupy, and will continue to occupy, the prime ecological real estate across the Great Plains.  In the nineteenth century, before European-Americans violently seized the grassland from the Native Americans, and when bison still roamed the plains in the millions, there existed a series of oases between the Missouri River and Rocky Mountains. These oases held the bulk of the region’s biological diversity. An array of plants, birds, mammals, and reptiles concentrated in the oases. During drought episodes and severe winters (or the occasional little ice ages that descended on the plains), the oases acted as sanctuaries, sustaining bison herds and other critters against the ravages of the Great Plains’ frequently violent climate. The oases were instrumental in the long-term survival of large bison herds.

In the nineteenth century, plainsmen, wholly ignorant of ecology and convinced of their god-given right to slaughter everything possessing a hide or devilish beady eyes, referred to the Great Plains’ oases as “bottoms,” which was a derivative of the term “river bottomland.” But the bottoms were not just any bottomland, they were parcels of land situated next to rivers and streams that contained robust timber tracts, fertile soil, tall grasses, and a perennial water source. Frontiersmen, at least the few who were literate, wrote of these rich bottoms, often remarking on the incredible number of species found within their borders.

Notable bottoms existed at the juncture of the Clark’s Fork and Yellowstone, at the mouth of the Tongue River where it enters the Yellowstone, at the confluence of the Bad and Missouri rivers, and near the headwaters of the Powder River where that river enters the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. Predictably, after European-American settlers conquered the plains, they erected their ranches, farms, and then towns atop the bottoms.  Today, Billings and Laurel, Montana, stand solidly atop the Clark’s Fork Bottom, Miles City occupies the Tongue River Bottom, Fort Pierre, South Dakota, dominates the Bad River Bottom, and the aptly named Buffalo, Wyoming, sits astride the former Powder River Headwaters Bottom. With the former bottoms, or oases, now firmly buried beneath concrete, asphalt, bricks, and mortar, the bison herds of some future Buffalo Commons will not have the necessary oases to survive and thrive in the harsher, drier Great Plains environment. Without those former oases, there can be no Buffalo Commons. And as climate change and water depletion intensify, Plains residents will increasingly congregate in the area’s urban hubs, such as at Billings/Laurel, Montana, Miles City, Montana, Buffalo, Wyoming, and Pierre/Fort Pierre, South Dakota, leaving no room for Buffalo-Commons-bison-herds to find a home on the range. Instead of a Buffalo Commons emerging across the western plains, the region is going to become what American explorer Stephen Long perceived it to be back in 1820 – “The Great Desert.”

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