"When the buffalo saw their day was over and they could no longer protect the people, survivors gathered in council. Early one day a young woman looked through the mist to see the herd appear like a spirit dream and walk into an opening in Mount Scott. Inside, the world was fresh and green as it once had been. Into this beauty the buffalo walked, never to be seen again." - Kiowa legend.They come plodding out of the foggy dawn, lured by the bleat of the truck's horn and its promise of alfalfa and molasses cubes, a tempting treat compared to their sturdy diet of native Blue Stem and Indian grasses.

The morning ritual is to prepare 300 buffaloes for release onto the sepia-toned hills and swales of ranch land owned by The Nature Conversancy. Gamboling around the slow-moving truck, the buffalo grunt a murmur of reassurance that ripples slowly through the herd."You know they belong when you see them out there," says Bob Hamilton, a biologist charged with growing the herd into 1,800 head over the next decade. "They're a major cog in the ecological machine."

The buffalo release this fall at the 36,600-acre preserve on the Kansas border is but one piece in a mosaic that, for some, is beginning to resemble the prophesies made by Indian mystics a century ago.

In the Ghost Dance of the late 1880s, Plains Indians spoke of a time the buffalo would return, signaling the collapse of white society and a reclamation of lands taken from the tribes and their buffalo brothers.

Now, the buffalo are returning.

Their numbers have quadrupled to 135,000 since the 1970s; exponential growth is expected to continue as the herds expand for commercial, conservation and cultural reasons.

And as the buffalo move onto the land, people continue to move off.

Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and the Dakotas have seen populations in more than a hundred rural counties drop to half their 1930 levels. Railroad and bus services have declined. Schools and hospitals have closed. Working farms and ranches have disappeared.

There are those who see a connection.

"The buffalo tell us what is happening and what is likely to happen in the Great Plains," said Frank Popper, a Rutgers University urban planner who has been predicting the Plains will revert to a frontier of buffalo and open spaces.

"Buffalo are the only animals in America that have commercial, wildlife and mythic value," he said. "They are important because they represent a different use of the land."

Those seeking buffalo signs can find them up and down the Great Plains, a 1,500-mile, 10-state region stretching from Montana to the Rio Grande. The signs are fueled by different, unrelated sources, from ranchers and conservationists to Indian tribes. But whatever their motives, each are contributing to the rapid growth of the herds.

In Yellowstone National Park, a policy of nonintervention has seen the herd triple to 3,300 over 20 years and push beyond park boundaries. There are plans for herds on public park lands and private conservation tracts from Wyoming to Texas.

Ranchers are turning to buffalo. Naturally adapted to prairie life, buffalo are cheaper to raise than cattle; their low-in-fat, high-in-hype meat brings in more money. The incentives are such that the American Bison Association has grown from 14 members in 1974 to 1,200 today.

Buffaloes also are returning to Indian lands throughout the Plains. Economic and ecological benefits are cited, but there is an emphasis, too, on their spiritual impact.

"When native people see a herd for the first time, the moment is incredible," said Donna House, a tribal organizer in Santa Fe, N.M.. "There is a breath, a sigh, as if they had been waiting for something for a long time and it's finally here."

But there also is a considered hesitation as some wonder if it is the time - or the way - for the buffaloes' return. They worry about the imposition of feedlots and breeding strategies on an animal that symbolizes the ethos of the American frontier.

"We've seen people manipulating buffalo to behave like cattle and we believe the buffalo has an intrinsic spirit that won't stand to be treated like that," said Mark Heckert, director of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, a group of 26 tribes raising buffalo on Indian lands. "It has some tribal elders saying we have to ask the buffalo if they want to come back."

It is too early to tell if the buffalo will even come back. Their total population represents little more than one day's cattle slaughter in this country. The future of the animal, and its habitat, remains as Crowfoot, a Blackfoot warrior-poet once said, ethereal as "the breath of a buffalo in the winter time."

"What's developing is a New West that's similar in some ways to the Old West," said Robert Pickering, head of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Natural History. "It's visionary stuff. It's just not clear what the vision is."

The vast grasslands of the Great Plains molded, and were molded by, the partnership of buffalo and Indians that lasted a hundred centuries before the white man came.

Some 700 varieties of plants formed the great sea of grass that covered 20 percent of the continent.

The buffalo grazed the grasses into a balance of annuals and perennials that provided home for a rich diversity of animal life. Buffalo manure provided a rich compost for plant and insect species. The tribes had their impact, too, setting prairie fires in ceremonies and warfare that kept eastern forests from invading the Plains.

In turn, the Plains shaped the buffalo. The big animals adapted to a climate that produces the nation's hottest summers and coldest winters, a landscape with the shortest growing season and a succession of miseries ranging from hail, windstorms and blizzards to drought and locusts.

The herds prospered in sizes estimated between 30 million to 50 million animals. But it took only a generation - and the introduction of railroads and buffalo hunters - to wipe them out.

They were replaced by settlers lured to the region by the free land of the 1862 Homestead Act, but continuing drought in the 1890s sent many farmers packing. They were followed by a second wave of migration enticed by even more generous homestead laws and Europe's hunger for American wheat during and after World War I.


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A lucrative - and mythical - beast

The Plains Indians think of the buffalo as part of their extended family. The animals are called Buffalo People, dubbed brother and grandfather, and considered to have equal tenancy of the land.

"The Buffalo People have a relationship of their own to the natural world. They have locality, relationships and religion," said Ed Valan-dra, a Lakota Sioux writer and activist. "When you talk about people, you're talking about relationships. Our definition of what a people is more encompassing." Skip Sayers appreciates the buffalo's mythic quality. But the president of the American Bison Association sees a practical side to the animal.

"I'd be raising them because of their antics and the Old West heritage," he said.

"But when I get a $1.25 to $1.50 a pound for bison while I would do well to get 85 cents for cattle, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the advantage."

Sayers, a Missouri-based entrepreneur, ticks off other advantages with the salesmanship of a car dealer. Bison, he says, are easier to raise. Unlike cattle, they can survive harsh winter weather, feed and water themselves in snowy fields and give birth with fewer complications.

Bison meat is low in cholesterol and fat, high in vitamins. Besides the meat, buffalo hides and skulls add to a lucrative mix of products.

Sayers sees no downside to this commercialization of the animal.

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"The more people eat bison, the more bison you'll have," he said.

But this notion bothers those who see the imposition of cattle breeding and other techniques on buffalo as continued exploitation of an animal with deep spiritual significance.

For tribes now reintroducing buffalo on their lands, there is strong resistance to such practices as feedlots, breeding out naturally aggressive or independent animals, dehorning to prevent injuries, and shipping herds to slaughterhouses.

"When we look at what happened in the past 30 years of the 19th century, it is a real responsibility for the Lakota people to ask the buffalo to come back," Valandra said.

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