The Next Great Hunt

The Great Hunt of the late 1800s nearly drove bison to extinction. Now, a new kind of hunt may be the only way to save them.

By Jim Robbins

the Great Plains is now considered one of the most degraded ecosystems on the continent. Cattle grazing under fence, irrigation systems converting grasslands into croplands—a century of these and other agricultural practices has taken a serious toll, depleting soil and aquifers. The wildlife hasn’t fared much better. Species such as wolves and grizzlies were completely pushed off the Plains and into the Rocky Mountains, and many of those that remain are dwindling: Approximately 128 Plains species are listed as endangered.

The idea of restoring the Great Plains surfaced two decades ago. In 1987, academics Frank and Deborah Popper argued that the best use of the region was turning it into a vast Buffalo Commons, bringing back the great bison herds that once swarmed the prairie. This, they said, would reestablish biodiversity and create a sustainable economy, attracting tourists and hunters.

The American Prairie Foundation is just one of the organizations working to reclaim the Plains. The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, Ted Turner, and the Popper’s Great Plains Restoration Council, as well as state and federal agencies, have set aside vast acreages of grasslands in North America, especially in the northern Plains, and many are trying to bring back bison. “Of all the grasslands, the northern Great Plains stood out globally,” Freese says. “It’s one of the few places where most of the grassland hasn’t been plowed, and the native prairie is fundamentally intact.”

In 2004, the American Prairie Foundation, which is affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund, bought its first ranch near Malta, Montana; it now owns five. So far the group has blocked up more than 70,000 acres of deeded and leased land. The Foundation hopes to connect the acreage they control to protected federal land, creating a refuge of several million acres (larger than Yellowstone National Park). This contiguous stretch of land would allow bison to roam freely as they did in the days before the Great Hunt.

When settlers came to America’s Great Plains, the grass was crawling with wildlife: bison, birds, antelope, deer, elk, wolves, grizzlies, prairie dogs. Bison, the most emblematic of prairie species, were present in numbers so great, they looked like a vast, brown inland ocean.

Bison are more than symbols of the Plains: They’re a keystone species, critical to biodiversity. Herds of the wild, free-roaming animals mow the grass low in some places and leave it longer in others, benefiting a range of birds with different habitat needs. Prairie dogs follow the herds and graze the grass further to build elaborate, socially complex towns of thousands of individuals. By digging and aerating the soil—and creating habitat for burrowing owls, snakes, and insects—prairie dogs extend the ecosystem underground. The creatures also fill most of the shelves in the Great Plains grocery—eagles, coyote, and swift fox hunt them. The highly endangered black-footed ferret depends on prairie dogs for shelter and food: the ferrets live in prairie dog burrows and attack them while they sleep.  

“We need to let the bison graze on the landscape to create these complexities, this mosaic of grazing intensity,” says Freese.

Bison also helped shape the landscape and cycle nutrients throughout the ecosystem. For instance, the animals created wallows—saucer-like depressions—by rolling on the ground. “These became mini-wetlands and had a diversity of species within them,” Freese says. When wild bison died, they became food for scavengers that then scattered a nitrogen-rich deposit, fertilizing the land and nurturing a diverse habitat.

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