American idol: bison have graced U.S. currency and are the symbol of at least two federal agencies, yet their numbers in the wild are a mere shadow of their former strength.
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher, WCS.
The central portion of the United States was once called a sea of grass. Bison were the whales of those seas until being nearly hunted to extinction. The sea of grass was then given over to waves of grain, cattle ranchers and thousands of miles of barbed wire fence.
The American Prairie Reserve organization is trying to buy back the sea of grass, one ranch at a time. They hope to eventually piece together a three million acre preserve that will rival Africa's Serengeti and resemble the landscape Lewis and Clark traveled through more than two centuries ago. The land will remain open for the public to explore and enjoy, according to the organization's website.
The 150,000-acre South Ranch in Montana was founded by two bison-hunting Civil War veterans after the bison had been wiped out. Now, it is the cattle ranch that has been wiped out to make room for the bison. The ranch's owners recently sold the land to the American Prairie Reserve, reported the AP.
Buying land for a preserve isn't a new idea. The aristocracy of the world maintained game preserves in ancient times. Unlike those ancient hunting preserves, the goal of the American Prairie Reserve is not to provide meat and sport for the wealthy, but to restore one of the most endangered ecosystems in America.
The purchase of the prairie did have some help from the modern-day version of aristocracy. Candy bar billionaires, John and Adrienne Mars, donated $5 million to American Prairie Reserve.
Not everyone is happy with the bison-benefiting business transaction.
"They keep saying they're saving it. But it already looks beautiful. They're not saving anything," rancher Vicki Olson told the AP.
Olson is in no danger of losing the ranchland views she finds beautiful. The vast majority of the former prairie remains beneath the cattles' hooves and is bound with barbed wire. Although hundred of bison now roam 14,000 acres of the American Prairie Reserve's lands, they are kept from straying by an electric fence.
Prairie dogs and the endangered black-footed ferrets that feed on them are also finding a home where the buffalo roam and the pronghorn antelope play on American Prairie Reserve land. Foxes and cougars are also found on the restored prairie.
This story was provided by Discovery News.