Bison Natural Region


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We at Prairie Fire share with our readers the growing unease over the repetition of annual legislative assaults on various aspects of the Nebraska Environmental Trust. Nebraska has less public land than all but one other state, yet even the most modest proposals (for example, of conservation easements or public access) seem to create quite a stir. Not only in Nebraska, but nationwide, there are efforts to restrict landowners from fully exercising their property rights for conservation plans and programs. Further, there are continuous legislative efforts to earmark Nebraska Environmental Trust funding for specific projects and programs that have senators’ appeals, interfering with the normal procedure of allocating funds to the trust. Yet that same legislative process of interference is criticized when done on the federal level. We hope to stimulate a series of discussions about the larger subject of prudent land use for agriculture and wildlife by presenting this opening essay by Francis Moul.

Bison Natural Region

By Francis Moul

They are North America’s largest mammals, shaggy beasts with spindly legs but with surprising speed and amazing strength. If aroused, they can go through a reinforced five-strand fence as if it were paper. They once covered most of North America by the tens of millions but were reduced to a few hundred animals by the beginning of the 20th century. Today, bison may be one important piece to the restoration of successful economic life, pride and wildlife biodiversity on the northern Great Plains.

This is a time of long-term drought that has decimated cattle herds in the northern Great Plains, a time when deep rural counties have lost population over several decades until there is little vitality left. Businesses are closing, young people are leaving and some communities resemble ghost towns. It seems ironic that bison may be one way to begin to reverse this tragic trend.

There are about 300,000 to 400,000 bison now in the United States, mostly on private ranches; only 20,000 are considered wild animals, grazing the open range generally found on public lands. One of the best ways to see the animals is in Custer State Park, 71,000 acres in western South Dakota, where herds regularly amble across highways.

That experience—and much more—could be opened up throughout the northern Great Plains if a new public/private policy was developed to create a wildlife-based rural economy using the natural ambience of the landscape. It would mean allowing the keystone species, bison, to move freely across large areas where they can interact with native species, such as other large mammals, ferrets, prairie dogs, many birds and predators, who all once depended on the bison.

Public land is scarce in the Great Plains, but there are hot spots where public and private lands intersect and could produce viable areas of wildlife biodiversity along with economic development through ecotourism, hunting, educational facilities and sightseeing. One of the hottest of these areas is a three-state confluence of South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming that includes the Black Hills and some 4 million acres of nonprivate lands —federal, state, local and tribal.

One of the major problems of developing a sound plan to use these lands for an ambience economy is their widely diverse ownership and management. In the tri-state area, there are three national grasslands and two national forests all under the U.S. Forest Service, two national parks under the National Park Service, isolated U.S. Bureau of Land Management units, several state facilities, state school lands and the Pine Ridge Reservation of more than 2 million acres. Interspersed within those units are private lands caught in a checkerboard configuration. Cattle grazing is permitted on much of the federal land through private permits or with multiowner grazing associations; the reservation has about 200 such grazing units.

The key to overcoming this bureaucratic puzzle of ownership and management is simply to accept the existing land ownership and instead concentrate on how the land is used. Even though the federal land generally has a congressional edict for multiple use that includes conservation, restoration, recreation and wildlife, the actual use of the land is geared to cattle grazing for profit.

Daniel Licht, a wildlife biologist with the National Parks Service, notes that the fragmentation of federal and reservation land into the check- erboard public/private mode works against even the desired multiple uses, such as public recreation and wildlife diversity and production. Islands of public land floating in acres of private pastures and cropped land cannot be effectively managed for wildlife diversity and its accompanying uses for tourism and recreation. “Only on very large tracts … can many of these species and processes continue unfettered… Society needs to accept the candid truth that if comprehensive grassland biodiversity protection is to occur, it will happen on large tracts of contiguous public lands,” Licht wrote in his book “Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains.”

The need to build a wildlife-based rural economy is emphasized in an important study in Nebraska that can be applied across the northern Great Plains. The study, “Natural-Resource Amenities and Nebraska’s Economy” by Claudia Alderman, looks at the current connections, challenges and possibilities of creating such an economy. The report notes that natural resources do not have to be converted into crops, electricity or other commodities to support economic growth. Instead, growth can occur when natural resources provide nonconsumptive recreational opportunities and other amenities that visitors find desirable. This process is called amenity-driven growth.

Today, a unique opportunity to create a wildlife-based rural amenity economy exists in that tri-state area of South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. There are already several public, tribal and private bison herds there.

Yet, ranchers face many problems. Public land such as the national grasslands is open to every citizen for hiking, camping or sightseeing. There are federal grazing regulations and standards to follow and issues over stocking the land and maintenance of fences and infrastructure, such as water pipelines. The spread of prairie dog towns from public to private land is a major controversy.

One way to treat these problems may be for Congress or the president, by executive order, to create a Bison Natural Region. This would be an independent federal agency that would not own any land but would have a budget that could provide incentives for all the players to cooperate in a new wildlife-based rural economy, featuring wildlife biodiversity centering on bison. It would be able to foster agreements among public agencies, tribes and private landowners or corporations concerning the use of their lands for eco-tourism, recreation and other money-producing activities. Profits could be divided according to the shares of land provided for each project.

The newly designated region could have a staff of administrators, economists, wildlife managers and biologists and land experts. Grants for infrastructure, such as bison fencing, could be made to project partners, whether they be a tribe, the U.S. Forest Service or a private corporation. Educational facilities could be sponsored with, perhaps, a com- bination of public and private funds. Nearby colleges such as Chadron State College, which already features a range management curriculum, could be involved to help train local residents for new jobs created by the new enterprises.

Ranchers in the area can gain through two ways. Under the region, an emphasis on land exchanges to better consolidate public entities, such as the national grasslands, and ranches with interspersed land could be accomplished through land exchanges or sales and purchases. Currently, such exchanges take years to accomplish, and they are not a priority for either ranchers or federal agencies. The region could seek new and easier rules for land exchanges and provide expert help from assessors, land agents and federal lawyers. Speeding up the process and making sure that it is a win-win process for all parties could be an enormous advantage for the new projects.

Secondly, owners could combine their ranches under private corporations that open up large areas of contiguous land for wildlife production, including permitted federal grazing land. Income can come from selling concessions for a wide variety of tourism activities, hunting permits and harvesting excess animals for meat and hides.

Grazing associations that represent multiple ranchers in acquiring federal grazing permits already exist, with offices and staff. They could easily be transferred into corporations that would represent their member ranchers. They are familiar organizations controlled by the ranchers, with a long history of service.

Local governments can gain from this activity as well. No additional public lands are required or needed, so property taxes remain the same. Land exchanges would be done on a value-for-value basis. Moreover, recreational lands, especially with improvements such as bed-and-breakfasts, hotels, infrastructure for tourists, visitor centers and other items, will increase the value of the land, thus increasing the tax base.

As an independent agency, the region should be free of interagency and public-private squabbles and could focus on research and expert help to create the new economy. It could back up its activities with federal grants and loans for infrastructure and services. All parties would be able to benefit. A first step might be federally funded feasibility studies.

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