Book Review: The Buffalo Commons

Review of Richard S. Wheeler, The Buffalo Commons, Forge, 2000.

Jeffrey Shallit
Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, N2L 3G1.

Montana. Rancher with alcoholic wife. Environmentalists. Wolves. Billionaire with a dream to turn replace failing ranches with a vast buffalo-covered prairie.

All the ingredients for a great and stirring novel, right? Maybe so, but Richard Wheeler's The Buffalo Commons isn't it.

I really wanted to like it, honest. Unfortunately, there's something to dislike on almost every page.

The title is stolen from a real-life proposal by Professors Frank and Deborah Popper. But if you hoped to learn something about that proposal, you won't find much here: the Poppers aren't even mentioned once.

Instead you find insipid characters that are given to saying things like "Alcoholism is a demon each person fights alone, even when there are friends and counselors around" and "It's an instinct I have that leaps beyond my very limited powers of thought."

The portrayal of native Americans borders on racism, with the main Indian character described as having "some primordial way of recognizing other peoples".

But the worst aspect of the book is its nasty slant on the Buffalo Commons controversy. It's so one-sided it could have come directly out of a Rush Limbaugh radio program. In Wheeler's portrayal, the ranchers are all noble and long-suffering, while the environmentalists are all evil, soulless hypocrites --- even more so if they happen to work for the government. We learn that the Environmental Protection Agency has a "penchant for abusing citizens" (p. 193) and "the protection of civil rights of citizens" is of little concern to Greens (p. 302). Wheeler's kindly old Professor Kazin says things like "The very concept of wilderness touted by the Sierra Club and the Greens is essentially racist" (p. 29) and "The government's bought most of the university environmental sciences departments in the country". Vegetarians by their very nature are suspect; one character is only redeemed when he "[takes] beef into his mouth"!

The author hasn't done his homework very carefully, either. He mistakenly calls the Wood Bison or wood buffalo (Bison bison athabascae) the "woods buffalo", and he gets the name of Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park wrong. The decline in the Wood Bison population in the park isn't, as claimed by one character in the book, "all because of wolf depredation". As Mark Bradley, the conservation biologist for the Park told me, the decline isn't fully understood, but is certainly due to many factors, including the cessation of winter feeding.

The lowest point in the book was when one of the characters buys "a Skye's West novel, and thus spent the day amiably." Guess who the author of the "Skye's West" series is? That's right, Richard Wheeler. This self-congratulatory ploy is par for the course.

If you're interested in the Buffalo Commons proposal, avoid this cynical propaganda exercise, and pick up a copy of Anne Matthews' splendid nonfiction book, Where the Buffalo Roam, instead.