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Bring Back the Buffalo!

by Ernest Callenbach

280 pages, paperback, University of California Press, 2000

In Bring Back the Buffalo! Ernest Callenbach portrays the history and present situation of the buffalo in American Plains, and outlines the substantial benefits to the human economy in the region that could result from restoring buffalo to their former prominence. Because buffalo are adapted to the ecology of the Plains and cattle are not, buffalo can be more efficiently produced, and this efficiency will be important, Callenbach believes, as fewer energy inputs are available to agriculture in the years to come.

Praise for Bring Back the Buffalo!

"Ernest Callenbach has offered a brilliant, positive, and eminently practical vision. By bringing back the bison to the Great Plains, we will also bring back a way of living in place that has the chance for permanence and fulfillment.:--Jerry Mander

"This book offers the key to ending our conflicts over public rangelands: bring back the bison and other native ungulates to replace the cattle that are eating the heart out of the arid West. That makes good ecological sense, of course, but as Callenbach shows, it could also make good economic sense and help to revitalize a threatened way of life." --J. Baird Callicott

Quotes from Bring Back the Buffalo!

"It is time to think of the Plains in new ways. As Native Americans are demonstrating by their reintroduction of bison on many reservations, bison can again become part of the natural Plains landscape--and, for Indian people, not only a source of self-sufficiency in food production but also a powerful spiritual and religious presence. For whites, bringing back the bison and their companion grazers on a large scale in Plains parks and on other public lands will provide us the opportunity to see what a sustainable ecosystem in the Plains is like. And growing numbers of bison on private ranch lands will help us learn what a permanently viable agricultural system could be. Moreover, because the Plains are also very windy, they could become producers of a significant amount of wind-generated electrical energy, making the region self-reliant in energy.

"Thus, in the next few decades, a period when most of American society is virtually certain to be wracked by increasingly severe social problems, many of them with ecological roots, the Plains could become a serene beacon showing the way to a sustainable future. There is no easy technofix for the thinning of the ozone layer; we are going to have to live with whatever its consequences turn out to be. We will not be able to reverse global warming. It is doubtful that we can avoid famines, resources-conflict wars, and ensuing disruptive human mass migrations. At home, we must somehow learn to live with a further decline in American real per capital income and the disintegrative effects of our consumerist economy on families and communities. But on the Plains, the potential exists to demonstrate that humans can inhabit our planet in a newly responsible, permanent, comfortable, and civilized way.

"Statistically, modern oil-propelled agriculture looks impressively productive. For several decades, in fact, despite extensive paving over and erosion and desertification of farmable land, the world's farmers defeated the predictions of pessimists that increasing population would outrun food production. . . . But at present . . . we put far more petroleum calories into agriculture than we get out in food calories."

"American agriculture presently accounts for only 3-4 percent of our total energy consumption. We may assume that the government will guarantee full fuel supplies to the agricultural sector for as long as possible; no government contemplates with equanimity the possibility of food riots. At the moment, nations addicted to oil income are pumping oil as fast as they can, and in fact an international oil glut exists, greatly to the temporary advantage of the industrialized countries. But in the long run--probably a matter of four or five decades--oil will become scarcer and considerably more expensive, to the point at which oil substitutes made from our considerable coal reserves will seem reasonable. And when the coal also swindles, Wes Jackson predicts, 'our last available fossil fuels will be spend on agriculture, perhaps to make nitrogen fertilizer to offset the consequences of soil loss.' Well before that time, agriculture that produces a net surplus on energy will become essential. This is possible on the Plains, if nowhere else in America."

. . .

"Even if we had huge numbers of bison on the Plains, they could not conceivably support our meat-eating habit at anything like its current level. As it happens, however, most American beef is actually produced in the wetter climates of the East, where bison restoration is extremely unlikely. The United States also participates in the international beef trade with places like Argentina and Australia; moreover, our extensive importation of cheap hamburger beef raised on what used to be rain forests in Latin America has led to boycotts of fast-food chains by environmental groups.

"If we made enough land available for them, we could theoretically have 33 million bison by the year 2011. Their natural increase annually thereafter would produce a harvestable surplus of about 13 million bison each year. But our current annual beef consumption amounts to the equivalent of about 36 million bison. Thus, the bison theoretically available a decade and a half from now would be enough to replace only a third of the beef we now eat, and the U.S. population is rising sharply. Even if we further reduce our consumption of meat, at the utmost bison are not likely to account for more than a third of our consumption of red meat.

"A fundamental if hypothetical ecological question arises: would harvesting 13 million bison annually deplete the Plains and prairie grassland soils on which the bison grazed? No one really knows for sure. Our present practice of extracting some 45 million cattle carcasses annually from feedlots is difficult to compare, since much cattle feed is grown by farmers elsewhere--particularly through highly net-energy-negative monocrop corn planting, which entails heavy damage to soils."

"Filling city dwellers' bellies with bison is not comparable to Indian uses of bison, which, before whites provided a market for hides and tongues, were entirely local and rigorously sustainable: all elements of the bison remained in the region. Even the bones were ultimately recycled through natural decomposition, until whites began hauling them east for fertilizer. Moreover, Indian populations were modest and their needs for bison as food were limited. Modern harvesting of bison, however, would remove millions of carcasses to the cities and suburbs, where most people live, and their digested remains would, like the rest of our urban sewage, be largely wasted or destroyed."

Table of Contents of Bring Back the Buffalo!

  1. The Bison Heartland
  2. The Managed Land
  3. Bison on Indian Reservations
  4. Bison on Public Lands
  5. Bison on Ranches
  6. Bison Country
  7. Real Productivity
  8. Bison as a Food Source
  9. A Buffalo Commons
  10. Bison and Wind Power
  11. Bison Politics and Cowboy Culture
  12. Conclusion: They Will Come

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