Books: Rewilding the West

Richard Manning rails against “map and camera” prairie restoration.

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The northern Montana prairie is not exactly inviting: It gets only 10 inches of rain a year, and the winters are Siberian. The region, known as the Missouri Breaks, was once a sea of grass supporting countless elk, bison, wolves, and grizzlies. But in the 19th century, humans evicted the megafauna in favor of cattle that have, as environmental journalist Richard Manning puts it, “vacuumed every blade of grass from the landscape.” In Rewilding the West, Manning tells the grim story of the Breaks and offers a prescription for turning the worn-out region into a pristine, profitable Yellowstone of the plains.

A private conservation group hopes to restore the Breaks by creating a 3.5 million-acre preserve open to bird-watchers, mountain bikers, and sport hunters. But Manning rails against map-and-camera preservation, which he sees as elitist. Instead, he advocates that the preserve become a self-sustaining grassland that will use carbon sequestration to protect prairie and reap profits from large-scale bison and elk hunting. A tenacious reporter, Manning is a guy with a passion for grass, and that’s a good thing. Rewilding the West can be preachy, but it reminds us of a forgotten place that deserves more attention.

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