Saturday, March 17, 2012

Born to be wild

Buffalo about to be released. Credit: NL
Buffalo are coming back to the American prairie 

Mar 17th 2012 | BLAINE COUNTY, MONTANA | from the print edition

IN A quiet spot in eastern Montana, on rolling golden prairies and under vast skies, 71 buffalo calves charge out of a corral. Kicking up dust as they run, they quickly join a herd of several hundred American buffalo of all ages. The calves had arrived by road from Elk Island reserve in Canada; they are pure descendants of the buffalo that once lived in this area. At the end of the 19th century just a few were saved from American hunters and bred, in peace, on the other side of the border.

Before Europeans arrived in North America as many as 60m buffalo are estimated to have ranged across the Great Plains. From around 1830, however, they were systematically killed until only a handful remained. Buffalo were taken for their hides, or simply because they were getting in the way of settlers. Men like Buffalo Bill slaughtered thousands.

At the end there was also a deliberate policy of wiping out the lumbering giants in order to remove the staple food source of Native Americans and to force them on to reservations. Last week’s buffalo “homecoming” was an emotional event for the Gros Ventre and Salish-Kootenai tribes who witnessed it.

Ultimately it is logic and enormous ambition that lie behind the return of the buffalo to Montana. The idea, says Sean Gerrity, president of the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a charity, is to create the largest wildlife reserve anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. Mr Gerrity wants to rebuild a vast native prairie of 3.6m acres (1.46m hectares) where an enormous herd of wild buffalo can roam free once again.

Recreating America’s version of Africa’s Serengeti means thinking big. A sustainable ecosystem needs to be able to cope with fires, disease and icing over of parts of the ground in the winter. But such a reserve would be of international significance. Grasslands, which are economically valuable as farmland, are enormously underrepresented in nature reserves in America and worldwide. Temperate grasslands have the lowest level of protection of the world’s 14 recognised “biomes”, or habitats.

APR is currently spending about $6m a year, largely on land. By autumn it will own or lease 270,000 acres. One of the first jobs APR has to do when it obtains land is to remove the fences. A single ranch can easily have more than 800 miles of barriers. APR will ultimately be able to stitch together a network of private and public land to create its reserve. But even though the land is cheap, at around $450 an acre, APR will need $330m to set up the reserve and a further $120m for an endowment to maintain it and pay for grazing rights.

Buying land in eastern Montana is not difficult. Thanks to its lack of water, ranching in the area is hard work, often marginal and increasingly unpopular with the children of ranchers. Those ranches that are still in business are in effect subsidised by the government, which charges grazing fees of just $1.35 a month for each cow on federal land.

In only 14 years from now, thanks largely to the buffalo’s natural fecundity, APR will have over 5,000 buffalo, the largest conservation herd on the planet. Significantly, this herd will be entirely free of cattle genes—unlike most existing buffalo herds in America, which have interbred with domestic cattle. Officially, the American buffalo is now a type of livestock. But one day, if Mr Gerrity gets his way, his buffalo will be declared wild animals again.

Part of the restoration project requires the return of another crucial species: the prairie dog. This “dog” is actually a small ground squirrel that forms large underground colonies. More important, it is the Chicken McNugget of the prairie—a convenient snack food for almost every creature, from burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks to foxes and even wolves.

Prairie dogs are hated by ranchers, who say their burrows pose a danger to cattle. So they are poisoned on a large scale. APR is in the early stages of developing a wildlife-friendly label for beef produced on ranches that are friendly to such prairie wildlife. In many parts of the world, such labels allow producers to command premiums for their produce.

Mr Gerrity says that the reserve will take decades to complete. But one day, he says, Americans will be able to come on safari in their own country and roam across the prairies, unencumbered by fences, to view abundance rather than emptiness.

When the explorers Lewis and Clark arrived in Montana in 1805 they found more wildlife than they had seen in any other part of their journey; elk, antelope, deer, beavers and grizzly bears. The buffalo came in “gangues” of tens of thousands. Restoring the abundance seen by early explorers, and with nothing more than private money, is a worthy gift to any nation.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, March 2012

Protester at Rick Santorum campaign event, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Credit: NL

No end in sight

Minor contribution to this lead in the US section.

There was something for all the contestants to hang on to on Super Tuesday. But Mitt Romney still looks like the eventual winner 

Mar 10th 2012 | ATLANTA, WASHINGTON, DC, AND YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO | from the print edition

“WE’RE counting up the delegates for the convention, and it looks good,” declared Mitt Romney on March 6th—“Super Tuesday”—the biggest single day in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. And so, up to a point, it did: Mr Romney, the front-runner, won six of the ten states holding primaries or caucuses, including a narrow victory in Ohio, the most fiercely contested. He performed just as well in terms of delegates to the Republican convention in August, where the nominee is formally selected, securing over half of those on offer. He now has well over twice as many delegates as his closest rival, Rick Santorum, and is over a third of the way towards the 1,144 needed to prevail. And yet it was still a lacklustre night, in many ways, for the presumed but unloved nominee. [More...]

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Mitt Romney dodges a bullet

But the narrowness of his victory in Michigan portends a long struggle ahead 

Mar 3rd 2012 | NOVI, MICHIGAN, COLUMBUS, OHIO, AND NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE | from the print edition

Jointly composed with Jon Fasman and Christopher Lockwood. I reported from Novi, Michigan.

ON FEBRUARY 28th a trickle of Democrats arrived to vote in Michigan’s Republican primary, as permitted under the state’s primary rules. They came to defeat the presumed Republican front-runner, Mr Romney. Democrats see him as the most dangerous opponent to Barack Obama, and relished the chance to promote Rick Santorum, a social conservative whom they think would be a lot easier to beat. In what became quite a nasty contest, with plenty of mudslinging all round, Mr Santorum encouraged the ruse.

Despite it, Mr Romney snagged a modest victory in Michigan, beating Mr Santorum by 41% to 38%, as well as romping home in Arizona, by 47% to 27%. A loss for Mr Romney in Michigan might well have been fatal. Not only did he grow up there, his father was a popular former governor. But Mr Romney also badly needed to demonstrate his appeal to the Midwestern voters who will be crucial in any general election. Scoring such a narrow victory means that he failed to do so very convincingly.

Michigan is a big and diverse place, with everything from the kind of rich suburbs that Mr Romney grew up in to grim, distressed industrial cities such as Flint, Pontiac and Detroit. Little wonder then that it is a vital swing state, with a useful 16 votes in the electoral college that actually chooses the president. On the face of it, Mr Romney’s stronger economic credentials might seem to commend him to voters looking for a turnaround for America. But matters are more complex in a state where the car companies are crucial—and where many voters believe that Mr Romney would have preferred their industry to go bankrupt than to get money from the government to help it survive.

Exit polls showed that Mr Romney’s Michigan voters were older, wealthier and better educated than Mr Santorum’s. In other words, when Mr Santorum called the president a “snob” for wanting to send everybody in America to college, he was making a naked, and rather successful, appeal to class resentment. [More...]