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Back to Basics

To restore America, let us restore our frontier, by restoring the bison.


By and large, resolutions are a little silly. If it was really going to change your life so definitely for the better, you should probably have done it already. Why would you wait for New Year’s Day to do what is needful? It’s not even a solstice. But we are creatures like other creatures, of rhythms and seasons, and so, silly or not, January is a month for getting back to basics, for looking ahead with resolve and making grand plans. Yes, perhaps we ought to have taken another course, or started this new one sooner, but here we are in 2023 with another chance to get on track and now is better than never, and late can be left for historians. 

Bring back the bison. The significance of the frontier in American history is now a cliche, fought about in the way only something obviously true can be. Frederick Jackson Turner was simply right that winning a wilderness shaped the national psyche in a powerful way. The west provided a vital myth to American identity that could appeal across partisan lines and act as a release valve for regional faction—trapped wherever, there was always somewhere else to go. And as the land remade pioneer men and women, they remade the land, too. Turner was right that the closing of the frontier marked a shift in national consciousness. No longer winning a wilderness we won a world, exporting our preoccupations to every far flung corner of the earth. But perhaps the American character can be renewed in the renewal of wilderness, and perhaps that renewal can begin by renewing North America’s great herds of bison. 

Long time readers have heard this before, but it is January and we are getting back to basics. Besides, though I have beef with the New York Times, I also now have bison. In Tuesday’s paper, Jim Robbins details the efforts of American Prairie, a conservation nonprofit working to restore wild prairie and wild bison—ecosystem and keystone species—in Montana since 2001. In the past, there were tens of millions of “buffalo” roaming North America, their migratory and feeding habits anchoring a biome that supported enormous animal diversity, and, at least for an age, the meat and hide needs of settlers and Indians alike. Now there are only a few hundred thousand, scattered across the country in pockets. “In part because of the loss of bison and other megafauna, intact grassland biomes are now among the most endangered in the world, and the numbers of many species that depend on them have collapsed,” Robbins writes. “The primary task here now, researchers and managers say, is to increase the number of bison and acres… [T]o foster a functioning prairie ecosystem at least 5,000 bison would need to be able to migrate freely on some 450,000 contiguous, fenceless acres.”

Close readers of Robbins’s report will see many of the worst tics and tells of leftist “green” policies in it, largely in what is not said. Those concerned about already enervated private property laws will understandably wonder from where contiguous, fenceless acres are supposed to come, or what American Prairie success would mean for grazing rights. How are “several hundred million dollars” to be acquired? Nonspecific references to farming practices as destructive to biodiversity might prompt discomforting thoughts of the ongoing farmer protests in the Netherlands over environmental initiatives. Indeed, human beings exist in this story only as experts and project managers. There is no mention of what we might do in or with a restored wild prairie, or what it might do in or with us. But while I think there is very real cause for concern that American Prairie might be used in practice, like so many other environmentalist initiatives, to further pinch a shrinking American middle class, this presents a set of problems to be solved rather than delegitimization of bison restoration as a project. 

There can be a humane vision for bringing back the bison. American Prairie, or something like it, can truly be American, for Americans, an inheritance. While the yeoman and gentleman farmer have been and remain a fundamental part of the American story, industrial agriculture as it is often practiced today is in fact a blight on our land, feeding subsidy cycles and corporate profits far more than our country’s children (how many forms of deconstructed corn do you eat in every meal?). It need not be productive land or personal land that be returned to prairie; it is hard to see how a case could be made that massive property buy-ups by billionaires, institutional investors, and foreigners could ever serve normal Americans better than experience of the ecosystem that inspired and nurtured their forefathers. Someday we might all afford to eat bison as a common rather than special alternative to beef. Prairie ranger and bison cowboy could be serious summer jobs. If you want to know more about Bison Nationalism, read friend and writer Santi Ruiz’s 2020 introduction. In 2023 it’s past time to get back to where we came from, the wilderness and the frontier.