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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Buffalo Commons authors look back at evolution of their Great Plains bison concept

By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Almost 37 years ago, Frank and Deborah Popper’s collaborative academic article was published in a small magazine for planning professionals.

In the article, titled “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” the Rutgers University professor and his geography graduate student wife articulated the idea of a Buffalo Commons. The 139,000 square-mile nature preserve would connect 10 states – including Montana and Wyoming – where bison would be reintroduced.

“The Buffalo Commons suggests a way for the region to avoid the excesses of its past boom-and-bust cycles – in particular, its repeated pattern of successive oversettlement, overuse, economic and ecological collapse, and eventual population decline,” the Poppers explained in a 2006 article.

On March 27, the couple visited Montana State University in Bozeman for a public presentation and discussion about how things have changed since their article was first published. The university’s Ivan Doig Center hosted the event.

MSU graduate student Angus Cummings suggested the invitation. He has collected 20 hours of interviews with the Poppers as part of his thesis researching the history of conservation post-1970 and the rise of conservation nonprofits such as Montana-based American Prairie.

He described the couple as funny, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye on issues, and referred to Frank as the “dreamer” with big ideas and Deborah as “more engaged in the realities of life.”

The story

In that first article the Poppers were hoping for evocative language, but instead it was seen as provocative. To the New Jersey couple’s surprise, the proposal aggravated rural residents in the 10 states, provoking “debate, misunderstanding and opposition.” A record number of letters poured in to the magazine. Ecologist Curtis Freese wrote in a 2006 article that the Poppers had “created a firestorm of protest among communities of the region that continues to taint discussions about present-day bison conservation.”

“We had no expectation of the response,” Deborah said in an interview the day after the MSU talk, adding that everything she had previously written was given to a teacher, returned with a grade and forgotten.

“We thought we were doing just another academic-slash-professional paper that, like most of them, just disappear off into the ether,” Frank said.

“We definitely didn’t anticipate the people who would feel so strongly,” Deborah said.

What’s changed

In the wake of the dust-up over the article, the Poppers accepted invitations from colleges, community and farm groups to visit. The Poppers gladly accepted, attending meetings in barns, public parks and bars. Between 1988 and 1994 the Poppers made 63 presentations. This included a stop in Billings where they spoke to a crowd at Rocky Mountain College in 1991.

“It’s been a privilege for us to have those experiences,” Deborah said, and an “honor” Frank added.

Although many people in the communities disagreed with the Poppers, the conversations were usually civil.

“People brought us out because they disagreed with us,” Deborah said. “They would invite us knowing they wanted to get a conversation going. And here we are in 2024, and I don’t know if it’s happening as much as it should.”

Frank agreed. “The country is more divided and less civil,” he said.

Deborah called their experience of visiting the communities valuable and important.

“We’d like to see more of those types of conversations, with people actually talking about ideas where they may disagree, but as they talk they can find ways to come together better,” she said.

Frank said he enjoyed the trips because it took the couple outside of academia for “useful and eye-opening” chats with farmers and other rural residents.

One thing that hasn’t changed in all that time is a general suspicion by rural residents of outsiders and their motives and continuing distrust of the federal government.

In the 1991 Billings Gazette story about the couple’s talk at Rocky Mountain College, Circle, Montana, resident Helen Waller described the Popper’s idea as a “playground for East Coast and West Coast rich people.” She blamed failed federal farm policies for the region’s economic and social woes.

What they got wrong

For Frank, now 80, and Deborah, who is 76, their conception of the Buffalo Commons is seen through the wisdom of their many experiences and continued contemplation of the concept.

“The one thing we got seriously wrong in 1987 was, we thought the federal government would be a prime mover, the prime mover, in the creation of the Buffalo Commons,” Frank said. “That clearly has not happened. There have been a couple of sort of figurehead, symbolic changes in the Department of Interior. But the real action has been from state and local governments, native tribes, nongovernmental organizations, some private landowners like Ted Turner, and all of the smaller buffalo operations growing up across the plains.”

They also theorized the change would occur in about a generation, but Frank said that was a rather soft prediction.

What they got right

On the buffalo side of their vision, tribes are now working in concert with Yellowstone National Park to transfer live bison to reservations. In addition, the conservation group American Prairie, established in 2001 in central Montana, has fostered a growing herd of 900 bison.

At the same time that bison have been shipped to new homes, re-establishing their presence on the Great Plains, rural residents in many Plains counties have continued to decline, including in Montana. Although Montana recorded an increase of about 123,000 people between 2013 and 2022, that growth has been concentrated in and around urban areas. Meanwhile, portions of eastern and northern Montana have seen declines, according to a Montana Legislative Fiscal Division analysis.

“The Popper’s predictions have withstood the test of time as the economic tailspin and human population decline, with the exception of the Native American population, continues unabated in the Great Plains,” Freese wrote.

Since the late 1980s, there’s also been an increasing focus on conservation of grassland habitats by federal agencies, landowners and nonprofit groups. The largest of those initiatives was founded in central Montana in 2001. American Prairie has since grown to more than 460,000 acres, almost two-thirds of which are leased public lands. The nonprofit group also owns 800 head of bison.

“I am of the opinion that their ideas really did prepare the way for American Prairie,” said Cummings, the MSU grad student.

“The (Buffalo Commons) concept actually spurred all kinds of initiatives without it being prescribed,” Deborah said. “We weren’t telling people what to do and how to do it. Instead, as we kept talking and other people kept talking, things … started to pop up. So it’s a grassroots thing where different kinds of initiatives take place.”

Groups may not use the term Buffalo Commons, because it’s politically loaded or “radioactive,” Frank added, yet the idea was fertile soil in which to plant the variety of initiatives that have now sprung to life.

“The concept continues to evolve, and it’s not under our control,” Frank said.

Why the idea persists

The idea of preservation of the Great Plains and its wildlife predates the Poppers. In 1841, the painter George Catlin is credited with being one of the first to promote the idea of a federal preserve, the Poppers noted in a 2006 article. Authors James Michener, Annie Proulx and Ivan Doig – among others – outlined plains preservation scenarios through their fictional characters.

While American Prairie may seem to embody much of what the Poppers envisioned, the group’s founders were driven to locate in central Montana because of the intact native prairie and high concentration of federal lands, rather than by any East Coast article, according to their vice president.

Still, it’s interesting that after all this time, when other philosophical ideas have flamed out, the Buffalo Commons still commands interest.

Amanda Rees, a professor of history and geography in Georgia, wrote in a 2005 article that the concept “is still a powerful image in the minds of many Plains residents” because “issues such as tribally controlled land, range management, and sustainable agriculture are more relevant than ever.”

Cummings said he thinks the power of the idea of the Buffalo Commons is its flexibility.

“It became increasingly vague, and that allowed it to include a lot of different things,” he said, allowing the idea to transform over time.

He said the idea was also timed really well to coincide with the thinking of the conservation movement.

“It was something people could rally around,” he added. “People in rural areas don’t always agree, but one thing they sure as hell agreed on was that the Buffalo Commons was bad. That’s given it sticking power.”

Why the Plains?

Frank said he became enchanted with the Great Plains after driving across the region with friends and family. His first trips were in the summers of 1963 and 1964 as he carpooled with college friends to the West Coast.

“I was really struck by the beauty and the strangeness, at least in terms of my previous experience, of the Great Plains,” he said. “It was somber and austere, and yet somehow truly inspiring. And that always stuck with me.”

In 1985, Frank and Deborah took a family trip across the northern and central Plains, car camping with their two young children. This was two years after he became a professor of land-use at Rutgers University. With that job came tremendous pressure from the university to publish.

Frank’s interest in the population decline in rural areas, combined with the recent trip, helped inspire the Buffalo Commons theme. At the same time, Deborah was studying geography. It was the perfect opportunity for them to collaborate.

“One of the things that appealed to me about geography was the way in which it allowed you to ask all sorts of questions about how people lived, where they lived, and about place,” she said. “So much of my interest as we were traveling around and thinking about it was: What are the conditions that the people are facing here, both positively and negatively? What are the challenges they’re facing? How does it differ from the kinds of things I’m doing in my daily life and raising my kids?”


The many trips they took to talk to crowds about the Buffalo Commons was a “wonderful experience,” Frank said, even if in the beginning the couple was young, irresponsible and a bit ignorant.

“All of these trips have given us a wonderful sense of the diversity of the American landscape, the American people, how different people make a living and what their lives are actually like,” Frank said. “As I look back, we could never have gotten that had we stuck with standard city planning stuff in suburban New Jersey.”

Cummings said his research into the conservation topic has revealed how unique the couple are in sharing a concept and working on it for so long.

As young academics, the Poppers had no way to imagine how this one paper would forever change their lives.

“In truth, it’s really fun and gratifying for us to watch it happen,” Frank said. “People taking our idea and … turning it into on-the-ground details that Deborah and I have no sense of at all. We played a small part in that.

“As far as we can tell, it’s a very rare experience in academia.”