Recreating the American West


Anyone who grew up on Westerns and novels such as Little House on the Prairie and My Antonia would be hard-pressed to recognise the Great Plains today. The woods and grasslands known to the native Americans and the early pioneers have largely made way for suburban sub-divisions and industrial agriculture, with a co-dependent duo of grain crops and cattle destined for feedlots.

There is a movement afoot to restore the American West to its former glory and two animal species are taking centre stage.

The first is the American buffalo, a species that is once again roaming the plains and also gracing American dinner tables.

The second, rather more controversially, is the grey wolf.

Alongside this comes the return of a diverse array of native grasses – the “miles of copper-red grass” immortalised by Willa Cather. This is not just about a return to the past – in fact, according to the Buffalo Commons, a biodiverse native prairie is also an excellent carbon sequester.

There once were over 400 million acres of wild prairie grasslands in the central part of North America. The backbone of the Buffalo Commons movement is the work – over a period of decades – to re-establish and re-connect prairie wildland reserves and ecological corridors large enough for bison and all other native prairie wildlife to survive and roam freely, over great, connected distances, while simultaneously restoring the health and sustainability of our communities wherever possible so that both land and people may prosper for a very long time.

The eco-system will not truly return to its original state without the reintroduction of the original predators, namely the grey wolf.

The Big Bad Wolf is not a popular figure in the American psyche, and even less so for the nation’s farmers. But in some parts of the country, reintroducing the wolf is exactly what is being done. Park rangers have slowly been releasing breeding pairs of wolves into Yellowstone National Park since the 90s, for example.

It’s all very well restoring the native prairie on public land, but what about private land? And how will communities support themselves without farming?

It’s hoped that eco-tourism can partly replace farming in some areas. Yet farmers are very much part of the picture, not only through personal involvement in the Buffalo Commons on the perimeter of their properties, but also by rearing buffalo for meat.

True restoration of the Great Plains relies on ranchers coming on board and ranchers rely on Americans choosing to eat buffalo rather than beef. This means that even private farmland can be planted with native grasses and form part of a healthy, functioning eco-system. Buffalo are ideal to raise from a farmer’s perspective – their preferred food grows naturally in this part of the world and they are perfectly suited to the climate.

If you are vegetarian and your dietary protein comes from organic tofu or lentils rather than any sort of meat, that’s great. If it doesn’t, there are very good arguments for at least cutting down on the meat you eat, but you might also want to consider buffalo.

It doesn’t sound like eating buffalo is any great hardship for a meat eater. Eating Well magazine, which offers several enticing recipes, describes the meat as lean and healthy, possessing a “more intense, deep flavour than beef”. Yet the true satisfaction surely comes from knowing that, by consciously choosing buffalo instead of beef, you are directly playing a role in the restoration of the Great Plains.

Image: Nicolas T