Sierra Club lends its voiceand cloutto 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
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
landa tiny fraction of the entire northern Great Plainsand 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 Plainsincluding the
black-footed ferret, swift fox, prairie dog, mountain plover, and burrowing owlby
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 runand Americans a living link to their country's natural