Uncommon Buffalo and the Buffalo Commons

Most Americans know that the American bison, commonly called the buffalo, was almost extinct by 1900, the victim of slaughter and expanding white settlement. In the past 20 years or so, the term "Buffalo Commons" has become a popular catchphrase that usually refers to another disaster: the death of the small towns of the High Plains, a result of an exodus of young people, a lack of economic growth and an aging population.

Frank and Deborah Popper, two East Coast professors, proposed the term when their study of High Plains‚ geographical statistics spotlighted sparse and declining population. Why not, they suggested, turn the most distressed areas of the region into a vast common pasture for its natives, the American bison?

At first, the term Buffalo Commons was a lightning rod, attracting doomsday prophets and defenders of civilized life in small towns and rural areas across the Great Plains. But in the past few years, the term has garnered a more optimistic connotation.

I've followed this debate with interest as I travel to lead book discussions for the Kansas Humanities Council. Often our reading leads us into conversations about the future of the Great Plains, particularly about the future of the place we happen to be sitting.

These occasions lead me to believe that the original Buffalo Commons model, which suggests an either/or face-off between civilization and emptiness, is really a false dilemma. Rather, the term can suggest a way of living already common on the Plains. When I ask people why they live in a place so unforgiving, I get straight, immediate answers: wide-open spaces, inconstant weather, even isolation, traits that would discourage many.

Bison know how to survive these harsh conditions, and the people who live in these places have proved equally adaptable. The decision to live among a scattered population requires careful attention to the way life is lived, for both animals and people.

When I spent some months in Chadron, Neb., I was reminded of distances daily. Even in January, a grocery clerk asked if I needed dry ice to preserve my frozen items. I was invited to join years-old Chadron dinner clubs. These examples reflect a commons concept: looking out for shoppers who might have long drives home and creating occasions to soothe isolation by coming together for good food and conversation.

For many people of the region, Buffalo Commons reflects affection for the place itself. I met young people who intended to leave, tired of living where people and opportunities are so sparse. But I also met people who moved back, unable to live for long anyplace else. The lack of physical barriers and the immense sky that intimidate some people invigorate those who choose to live here. Like the buffalo, Plains people know how to survive on their own in blizzards and drought – and economic downturns.

Recently I was back in Chadron at the annual meeting of the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society discussing Sandoz's book, "The Buffalo Hunters." Historians, bison ranchers and the instructor of "buffalo management" on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation told of their experiences with animals they have come to admire for their endurance and intelligence.

Today, almost 300,000 bison roam America's grasslands, most owned by private ranchers and Indian tribes who raise them for profit. Ranchers and researchers have observed their bison herds for decades and know their animals intimately. These people tell of family groups, the communal care of the calves and the animals‚ ability to survive any kind of weather without human intervention. No wonder the American bison is the iconic animal of the Great Plains. Their intelligence and adaptation embody the commons ideal.

The Buffalo Commons seems to be developing unguided by any grand scheme, and it may well be the future of the Great Plains. I imagine it not as a desolation of abandoned home places and empty pastures, but rather a region where people find rich reward in the face of challenge and adversity.

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