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Sierra Magazine
Buffalo Nation

Speaking Up for the Buffalo

Sierra Club lends its voice—and clout—to prairie restoration When the U.S. Forest Service released its proposed 15-year management plan for the grasslands of the northern Great Plains last year, the Sierra Club seized the chance to hitch the voice of the people to the thunder of buffalo hooves. Kirk Koepsel of the Club's Northern Plains office says local activists helped generate public comments from more than 10,000 citizens who favor a two-pronged strategy for bringing the buffalo back to the prairie.

First, the Club hopes to work with the Forest Service to increase grasslands acreage devoted to bison by incorporating isolated areas that border already-established publicly owned herds, thus creating a network of bison preserves. In addition to improving prairie health, this would bolster tourism by providing a connection to prairie-region natural history and cultural heritage.

Secondly, says Koepsel, it's essential to help the region's ranchers make the switch from cattle grazing to bison grazing, which already holds potential economic benefits: Due to limited supply and growing demand, buffalo meat commands higher prices than beef, a big plus for struggling ranchers. The Sierra Club is pushing the Forest Service to offer such additional incentives as professional expertise on bison grazing and assistance in improving fencing.

The Club is also pushing to keep remaining wild prairie wild. Forty-five areas totaling 574,000 acres in the national grasslands of the northern Great Plains still qualify for wilderness protection. This acreage accounts for just one-fifth of the region's public land—a tiny fraction of the entire northern Great Plains—and wilderness designation is the best way to preserve its natural character. In addition to bison, the Club aims to restore rare native plants and animals in the Great Plains—including the black-footed ferret, swift fox, prairie dog, mountain plover, and burrowing owl—by better protecting their habitat on the national grasslands.

Several Club chapters are pursuing local efforts on behalf of the buffalo. The National Park Service has proposed to continue cattle grazing indefinitely in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, but the Kansas Chapter is trying to persuade the agency to reintroduce bison instead. In Montana, Club volunteers are working with tribes and federal land managers to dedicate a quarter-million-acre tract of public land, adjacent to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, to bison and other prairie species. Special protection, such as national monument status, could provide what national board member Jennifer Ferenstein calls "a connector between ecologically intact areas" that would give buffalo room to run—and Americans a living link to their country's natural history.

More on the buffalo:

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