I’ve written about the Buffalo Commons (here & here), now the concept has jumped the pond to the Old World (or maybe it really originated there). The Dutch, at Oostvaardersplassen (featured in a New Yorker Magazine article that inspired this post) have attempted to create a simulacrum landscape of the 13,000 years-ago Pleistocene on a reclaimed polder (circa 1968). This is not Ye Olde La Brea Tar Pits, but a living landscape populated by proxy megafauna.
The Rewilding Europe Project has established five sites in 2010: Danube Delta, Eastern Carpathians, Southern Carpathians, Velebit and Western Iberia. Projects elsewhere include, Spain’s Campanarios de Azaba to their border with Portugal, Lake Pape in Latvia, the Pleistocene Park in far-eastern Siberia aims to restore the Mammoth Steppe Ecosystem (they are attempting to clone woolly mammoths with Korean scientists), and further-a-field there is a tortoise reintroduction program on Mascarene Islands near Madagascar.
Oostvaardensplassen [OVP] is now inhabited with proxy animals to those long extinct, Heck cattle (proxy for Aurochs) from Germany were introduced in 1983, Konik horses (for tarpans) from Poland in 1984, and Red Deer from Scottland in the 1990s). (Why not European Bison?) Birds and variety of smaller mammals (like foxes and muskrats) colonized the site on their own. But OVP is not wilderness, but a managed parkland, where dying animals are euthanized ’10–20% of the large herbivores in the park die from natural causes or are killed by humans’. There is no attempt at bringing back apex predators proxies for Dire Wolves, Saber-Tooth Tigers, Wooly Mammoths, or European Lions of yore that are really needed to re-establish a healthy ecosystem. Modern Grey Wolves are expected to reach the area in a few decades though.
Another interesting aspect to the location is that during the Pleistocene, it was dry land (see below) and became underwater only after the end of the last ice age. One other distinction of this project is that the site was not abandoned or depopulated, but was intended to be an industrial development before the spontaneous colonization by wildlife inspired the park.
Map of the North Sea with Holocene shorelines – Oostvaardersplassen is just to the left of the key for 8700 yr on the Southeastern shore of the Markemeer
The NYTimes discusses the impacts of 71 purebred Bison returning to the great plains of Montana after a 140 year absence. American Prairie Reserve and the Nation Wildlife Federation are the groups behind this effort.
But with several groups now navigating a complex and contentious path to return bison to these plains, agribusiness is fighting back. Many farmers and ranchers fear that bison, particularly those from Yellowstone, might be mismanaged and damage private property, and worry that they would compete for grass with their own herds…
“Within this sea of agriculture there is room for small islands of conservation,” said Sean Gerrity, president of the American Prairie Reserve, the charity that brought the group of genetically pure bison back to a pasture just north of the refuge…
The bison debate has dredged up old tensions between tribes and their neighbors. Before Ms. Greybull, a Sioux, spoke in favor of the animals last fall at a fractious meeting in Glasgow, dozens of farmers and ranchers walked out in protest…
“I took a lot of arrows for this, but it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Schweitzer said. “If you want to get into a fistfight in Montana, go into a bar and share your opinion about bison or wolves.”
See also: Buffalo Commons I
Originating with two social scientists out of New Jersey, DE Popper & FJ Popper, back in 1987, the concept for re-wilding the great plains to establish the ‘Buffalo Commons‘ [pdf] has been met with skepticism if not outright rejection by most of the region’s residents. As the population across much of the western range drops below the 6 people per square mile threshold of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier theory, it is worth reconsidering the status of The Far West to The Midlands as Colin Woodward calls them. Perhaps we can also restore the traditional territories of the Plains Indians as the buffalo return too.
2000 population map legend (no 2010 census maps are available yet):
- 0-1 (white)
- 1-4 (yellow)
- 5-9 (yellow-green)
- 10-24 (green)
- 25-49 (teal)
- 50-99 (dark teal)
- 100-249 (blue)
- 250-66,995 (dark blue)
If fences are one of the essential infrastructure of the late 19th century plains, removing them opens up the question of how they originally shaped the rural landscape that we now know. Of course, the original infrastructure was and Jefferson’s Public Land Survey System, followed by wagon trails (as I’m not sure if the game trails/indian trails can be seen as discreet systems separate from the landscape matrix), then the Transcontinental Railroad before the interstate freeways system and oil pipelines emerged.
Woodward’s American map