I often keep a journal while on wilderness or near-wilderness trips. In my note taking I often keep a tally of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. My skills in identifying insects and other arthropods are woefully inadequate for me to note them. I need to work on those joint-legged critters.

Last month while paddling down the Upper Missouri River I kept such a species list. Far from being a true wilderness, it has some desolate stretches. And with your imagination you can squint as you pass through the country and almost make the cattle along the river’s edge into buffalo.

Sadly, the most common mammal species noted on our trip were the cattle. But that is no surprise since much of this country is made up of private ranches and Bureau of Land Management lands (BLM).

I grew more exasperated when we encountered frequent trenches eroded into the riverbank where the bovine beasts came down to the river. There were stretches where the shoreline looked groomed as it was grazed to a nubbin. My experience was further tainted, as was the quality of the river water, by the frequent cow pies in the river.

Nitrogen levels and other poisonous soups comprised of agricultural herbicides and pesticides are part of the run-off that are responsible for the BLM warnings that urge paddlers to carry their own water rather than filter  river water. The recommended volume of water to carry is one gallon per person per day. Using that formula we had 40 gallons of fresh water to tote and that translates to an additional 320 pounds in already crowded canoes.

Admittedly I am a flaming romantic and as much as I wanted to see the land as Lewis and Clark found it in the first decade of the 1800s, I knew that wasn’t likely.

Here is an excerpt from the journal of Lewis:

May 4, 1805 – “I saw immense quantities of buffalo in every direction, also some elk, deer and goats. Having an abundance of meat on hand, I passed them without firing on them; they are extremely gentle. … I passed several [bull buffalo] in the open plain within 50 paces. They viewed me for a moment as something novel and then very unconcernedly continued to feed.”

The only point in that journal entry that I can relate to is the numb stare that the various-colored cattle gave us as we floated by; as if we were “something novel.” Like Lewis and Clark we too passed an amazing amount of meat-on-the-hoof.

One morning we managed to put on a couple of miles without seeing one bovine intrusion or fence line. Floating quietly around a bend there were several of the invasive beasts standing placidly swishing their tails at the river’s edge.

“Damn vermin,” I muttered.

Charlie, my paddling partner and elder of the crew answered, “Tom they can’t help it. They are not responsible for their being here. We’re the vermin.”

He’s right. We did it; we introduced this non-native species.

Today 170 million acres of BLM lands in America are grazed and they produce only a tiny fraction of the nation’s beef products.

According to Debra Donahue’s book The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity, she claims the BLM has ignored the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act’s direction that public lands be allocated to grazing only if they are “chiefly valuable for grazing. “ The author goes on to conclude that where mean annual precipitation is 12 inches or less, livestock should be removed from BLM lands.

Nearly every day I expressed my desire for making the Upper Missouri a cattle-free zone. Instead there should be a vast commons where buffalo (bison), elk, wolves, grizzly bears and other wildlife and plant species could be reintroduced to help move the land towards a pre-settlement ecosystem.

Cattle cannot be considered a grazing substitute for buffalo whose numbers were in the millions. Buffalo and cattle have different diets and different foraging patterns. Bison were migratory, often not returning to an area for years. They didn’t concentrate in the river and stream bottoms. And perhaps most important, they weren’t managed by humans in a way that magnified their impact on the soils and the native flora.

The late Edward Abbey, the Southwest rebel author and disciple for a truly wild west called cattle run landscapes as being “cowburnt.”

His colorful rants won him many allies and enemies alike. But he was not one to back down. He often referred to western cattlemen as welfare parasites. “They’ve been getting a free ride on the public lands for over a century, and I think it’s time we phased it out.”

Abbey’s bluntness was often delivered to audiences that most of us would shy from. The following is part of an address he gave in cattle country at Lewis and Clark College in Lewiston, Idaho.

“Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague.”

Upon finishing our canoe trip, I  discovered that there is an ongoing super effort by the non-profit organization called the American Prairie Reserve to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States. Their stated goal is to create a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.

Piecing together existing public lands with acquisitions the goal would be to preserve roughly 3 million acres or an area the size of Connecticut. They envision an area that wildlife and flora can be restored where tourists can visit the area to bear witness to large herds of bison and other wildlife. It would be the West’s version of Africa’s Serengeti.

Amazingly this ambitious project has some momentum. There are few places on Earth where a dream of this magnitude can even be imagined. Imagine seeing a slice of something remotely close to what Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery witnessed. As for this vermin, I plan on directing some money their way. I like vast dreams.


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