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Feature Story
Photo of rancher Gene Barnard
Prairie Crossroads

by Richard Manning

The harsh landscape of the Montana plains has never been kind to humans. Now a proposed wildlife reserve could let nature, finally, have its way.

I usually enter the Missouri Breaks by driving a 55-mile-long gravel road straight south out of the closest town of any consequence, Malta, population 2,100 and falling. I often stop atop what passes for a hill in the short-grass prairie, a tawny landscape of gentle rolls like a cougar's hide. Gentle, however, is a seldom-used word in central Montana, a place of 50-below blizzards, 106-degree heat waves, and just enough annual rainfall to keep it from -- at least officially -- desiccating to desert.

From this hill, one can look northwest straight to the Little Rockies, 40 to 50 miles away, then pan a full 360 of unbroken horizon line, treeless and vast as a sea. Pick the vantage right and the whole sweep will contain not a single building, no structure more significant than a rusting run of three-strand barbed wire strung on steel posts. It's all grass. In the spring of a rare wet year, green native bunchgrasses and sagebrush grow. By fall, the grassland is grazed hard and flat as a parking lot. "Cow-burned" is the apt and usual description.

The emptiness says "isolation," a misanthrope's paradise that keeps pulling me back, but it is an illusion. This, I have come to understand, is a human-formed landscape, an artifact of agriculture; and agriculture, through 6,000 years, has evolved into the most environmentally destructive force on the planet. It is fitting, then, that this little corner of the globe should now be a center of our struggle to counter that force.

Photo of a bisonThis place is the very heart of what could well become the most important conservation project in North America. An organization called the American Prairie Foundation (by way of journalistic disclosure, I support the project but am not a part of the foundation) means to assemble here the largest temperate-grassland reserve extant in North America, a 3.5 million-acre cowless realm of free-roaming wild bison in herds large enough to thunder. The vanguard of these herds, five genetically pure yearlings, will be on the land this fall.

Taking a global perspective, something like 10 percent of all other types of terrestrial ecosystems, or biomes, enjoy some sort of protected status; only 1 percent of temperate grasslands do. Temperate grasslands -- even those as arid as Montana's -- are agriculture's favored milieu, and agriculture gets what it wants. Setting aside the Breaks would create a reserve larger than Yellowstone National Park. Its location, character, and scale make it a project precedented only in the imagination.

Among the first whites to arrive here was the artist George Catlin, who wandered into the eastern edge of the Breaks in 1832. He wrote:

It is generally supposed and familiarly said that a man "falls" into a reverie; but I seated myself in the shade a few minutes since, resolved to force myself into one; and for this purpose I laid open a small pocket-map of North America, and excluding my thoughts from every other object in the world, I soon succeeded in producing the desired illusion. This little chart, over which I bent, was seen in all its parts as nothing but the green and vivid reality. I was lifted up upon an imaginary pair of wings, which easily raised and held me floating in the open air, from whence I could behold beneath me the Pacific and Atlantic oceans -- the great cities of the East, and the mighty rivers. I could see the blue chain of the Great Lakes at the North -- the Rocky Mountains, and beneath them and near their base, the vast, and almost boundless plains of grass, which were speckled with the bands of grazing buffaloes! . . . What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world in future ages! A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!

In the late 1990s, an ad hoc coalition of conservation groups -- including the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the Predator Conservation Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Denver Zoo, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and a number of grassroots organizations -- decided to use Geographic Information Systems technology to achieve the same Olympian view of the plains. (The coalition is now known as the Northern Plains Conservation Network.) On a computer screen, GIS maps seem to boost the viewer by imaginary wings to the very position of the satellite from which they are derived. Using this continental view of the plains, from Saskatchewan south to Texas, the conservationists sought out large chunks of land ripe with opportunities. Their work, published last year in a report titled "Ocean of Grass," found 10 such areas and listed the Missouri Breaks as the priority site, the standout best opportunity. They have begun creating a sort of "nation's park," in Catlin's phrase, but the land has been headed in this direction from the beginning of white intervention, two centuries ago. The land has already made it clear it will settle for no less.

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Click to enlarge

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Richard Manning is the author of seven books, including Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization (North Point Press). He lives in Missoula, Montana, and is working on a book about the restoration of the Missouri Breaks.

Photos: Vern Evans
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council