June 25, 2024 | By:

Book Review of Back From Collapse: American Prairie and the Restoration of Great Plains Wildlife

Missouri River CMR Montana (Photo © George Wuerthner)

The Missouri River in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Eastern Montana’s northern plains are what some disparagingly call fly-over country. Once you leave the beautiful, forested mountains for which Montana is named, two-thirds of the state’s eastern portion is plains. It’s the kind of place where you can see a storm coming 50 miles away. The only thing that breaks up the horizon is the occasional grain elevator, usually the tallest building in the small communities along major highways. The landscape is dominated by large-scale agriculture: wheatfields, cattle ranches, and rolling grass to the horizon. In other words, it’s a country where most tourists and travelers speed along at 80 miles per hour, racing to get to someplace presumably more interesting.

However, Curt Freese’s new book Back From The Collapse might make you want to slow down and learn about the best place in the country to “rewild” the landscape.

Bison at American Prairie Reserve, Montana. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Bison at American Prairie Reserve, Montana. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

In Freese’s vision, the land of the Northern Great Plains can again be an American Serengeti. He describes an ambitious effort to restore the semblance of a functioning Great Plains ecosystem–the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana.

Dr. Freese has a wealth of knowledge and expertise on landscape-scale protection. He was the founding director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Ecosystem Program. Before that, he ran the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Latin American Program and was vice president for conservation programs of WWFs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

His book contains exciting and readily understood conservation and ecological theory. He knows how to spin a tale that will keep readers turning the page while they learn basic conservation biology theory.

Freese provides a tour of the natural history of Montana’s Northern Great Plains and the America Prairie Reserve (APR). APR is a private effort to recreate the past natural abundance by restoring the land’s wildlife and ecological influences.

Woodhawk Area, Upper Missouri River Breaks NM, Montana (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Woodhawk Area, Upper Missouri River Breaks NM, Montana (Photo © George Wuerthner)

APR buys private ranchlands in an ambitious plan to link these properties with several large public parcels, including the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell NWR and the BLM’s 377,000 Upper Missouri River National Monument. When completed, the sum of these areas would create a 3.2 million acre protected area (Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres) and eventually connect with the BLM’s 60,000-acre Bitter Creek roadless area and Canada’s Grassland National Park.

Ranchers operating on BLM and Wildlife Refuge Lands could see their use of grazing privileges retired through the Voluntary Grazing Retirement Act, a proposal to pay ranchers to leave public lands.

Since many of the world’s foodstuffs are grasses like corn, wheat, oats, and barley, much of the planet’s grasslands have been converted to Ag fields, while much of the rest of the unplowed landscape is devoted to domestic livestock production. Domestication has not been kind to grassland ecosystems; just in the region where the APR is located, 24 species, including 14 mammals, 8 birds, 1 fish, and an insect, have declined by 90% since the 1800s.

Bison feed on prairie dog colony. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Bison feed on prairie dog colony. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

A couple of centuries ago, things were different. The northern plains were known as one of the most remarkable parts of the West. Numerous travelers, starting with Lewis and Clark, were astounded by the beauty of the vast prairies, filled with herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn, followed by wolves and grizzlies.

Clouds of migrating waterfowl darkened the skies, and the grasslands were alive with prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and numerous grassland birds.

The abundant wildlife and the acquisition of the horse permitted numerous American Indian tribes, including the Blackfeet, Sioux, Crow, Assiniboine, and Cree, to roam the vast plains and live off the land’s natural wealth.

Famous naturalists of the 1800s, including George Catlin, James Audubon, George Bird Grinnell, Issac Sprague, William Hornaday, Ferdinand Hayden, and Teddy Roosevelt, wrote glowing accounts of the northern plains’ wildlife abundance. As some suggest, it was America’s version of the Serengeti.

The past fecundity of the Northern Plains and the possibility of restoration are the themes of Back From The Collapse. Grasslands now cover 40% of the Earth and support some of the most diverse wildlife in the world.

Freese’s book begins his sweeping tale of the Northern Plains by reviewing the geological events that have shaped the landscape, including the evolution of grasslands and associated wildlife.

He next moves into the history of the tribal occupation of the plains and how the cultural appropriation of the horse led to greater warfare and mobility. Which tribes controlled which part of the plains was a constantly shifting mosaic, partly due to warfare and Old World disease. Between 1730 and 1877, an estimated 50 epidemics struck plains tribes, weakening some communities whose territories were quickly colonized by other Indian groups.

Cattle have replaced bison in much of the northern Great Plains, but cattle are not ecological analogues of bison. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Cattle have replaced bison in much of the northern Great Plains, but cattle are not ecological analogues of bison. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

After the tribes were relegated to reservations and bison were extirpated, farmers and ranchers settled the plains in the 1880s. By 1895, 1.9 million sheep, 455,500 cattle, and 82,500 horses were grazing eastern Montana grasslands. Although immense herds of bison mobility allow them to rejuvenate the grasslands, livestock tend to re-graze the same areas year after year, degrading the grasslands and ultimately leading to the decline of livestock ranching operations. Cattle are not an ecological replacement for bison. Bison move more frequently, can defend themselves against predators, and can subsist on lower-quality forage than domestic livestock.

Freese doesn’t shy away from detailing how various government subsidies, from cheap livestock grazing fees to the destruction of predators like wolves and “pests” like black-tailed prairie dogs, the construction of massive dams like Fort Peck Dam, and ongoing Ag welfare like the Conservation Reserve Program has permitted the continued human exploitation of the landscape. For instance, the CRP has transferred more than 8.9 billion of taxpayer funds to farmers with no lasting benefit since the program only “leases” land for ten years, after which landowners can return to plowing up the prairie.

According to Freese, between 1995 and 2020, farmers and ranchers received more than 2.57 billion in farm subsidies in the eight-country area where the American Prairie Reserve is located.

It doesn’t take much of a mathematician to recognize that the public could easily buy hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of acres of land in this region if all the various subsidies were directed towards outright purchase.

Prairie dog (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Prairie dog (Photo © George Wuerthner)

The remaining chapters in the book provide a detailed overview of key species of the northern plains. Beaver, ungulates like pronghorn and bison, black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, carnivores from grizzlies to wolves, grassland birds, and pallid sturgeon are all discussed in detail. I learned quite a bit about each of these species from Freese’s detailed overviews of these species and their role in grassland ecosystems.

Some of these species are on life support. Wild pallid sturgeon may be extinct in the Upper Missouri, but hatchery-produced fish may be recolonizing the river.

Black-footed ferrets, a predator entirely dependent on prairie dogs, have been produced in captivity and released into the wild for decades. Besides facing poisoning programs on behalf of ranchers, the black-tailed prairie dogs are also susceptible to plague. Entire colonies die off, and with them, the food source for ferrets. Prairie dog populations are too fragmented, and most are too small to sustain ferrets. Whether ferrets can achieve self-sustaining populations is questionable without a corresponding increase in prairie dogs. The ferret-prairie dog link demonstrates the linkages between species that evolve over evolutionary time.

Fort Peck Reservoir not only flooded important riparian bottomlands but changed the water quality and blocked migration of native fishes with serious consequences for their survival. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Fort Peck Reservoir not only flooded important riparian bottomlands but changed the water quality and blocked migration of native fishes with serious consequences for their survival. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

While these species remain on the brink of collapse, the future of others is more hopeful. As the book’s title suggests, some are coming back from near extinction. Restoring bison and beaver to the plains is achievable—indeed, the APR has its own bison herds. Transfer of bison from Yellowstone to the Charles M. Russell NWR is being proposed. Grizzly bears may soon colonize the Missouri Breaks by moving out of the Rocky Mountain Front along the riparian corridors, and wolves are almost certain to recolonize the area once sufficient bison and elk populations are restored.

The decline of grassland birds is more problematic because they are losing their winter habitat in Central America and their nesting habitat due to grain production.

However, the chapter on Rocky Mountain locusts, now extinct, was the most interesting. I have experienced minor locust swarms where highways were so slick with dead bodies, that one had to slow down to avoid sliding off the road. However, there is nothing today like the locusts that darkened the sky in the past and consumed everything even remotely eatable, from the wool off the back of sheep to ax handles to even fence posts; one entomologist called them a “metabolic wildfire.”

One swarm was 1,800 miles long by 110 miles wide, estimated to contain 3-5 trillion locusts!

Grasshopper Glacier, Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, Montana. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Grasshopper Glacier, Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, Montana. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

It is difficult to appreciate how such a biomass of insects must have influenced the ecology of the Great Plains. The denuding of vegetation must have severely challenged many native herbivores and humans dependent upon them in pre-Euro-American days. The abundance of insects, however, was likely a boom in other ways. Their decaying bodies enriched the soil, promoting luxurious plant growth. Birds, rodents, and even predators like coyotes consumed the insects. We will never know how much these insect outbreaks influence the Great Plains ecology.

Like the great flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeons, the Rocky Mountain locust is gone. No one knows exactly why, but the plowing of the plains is thought to have been at least a contributing factor. Today, the only reminders of this massive insect spectacle are the numerous “Grasshopper Glaciers” scattered in Rocky Mountain ranges such as the Beartooth and Crazy Mountains.

In his final chapter, he provides the context and rationale for preserving this segment of the plains. He notes that if this vision is accomplished, we will see 100,000 native ungulates, gray wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and numerous smaller species like swift foxes and black-footed ferrets carving out a living on the land. Grassland birds will flourish. The ecological function will be restored.

Little Rockies Montana seen across Charles Mt. Russell NWR. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Little Rockies Montana seen across Charles Mt. Russell NWR. (Photo © George Wuerthner)

Freese’s vision helps us imagine a different future for the Northern Plains. When you can imagine something, there is hope. Freese’s book shows us the pathway to such a promising future.

And perhaps after reading Freese’s book, you will slow down on your next journey across the Northern Plains and visit the APR and CMR refuge and imagine, as he does, what could be. Rewilding the Northern Great Plains is ecologically realistic, economically sound, and ethically right. And it is happening right now.

Get your own copy of Back From Collapse: American Prairie and the Restoration of Great Plains Wildlife.

This review was originally published in The Wildlife News.

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