Restoring the American Prairie with Grass-Fed Buffalo Ranching

Dan O’Brien started an ethically-run buffalo ranch in order to reconnect the iconic animal with their free-range home in the Great Plains.

| February 2015

  • buffalo family
    The American buffalo is an iconic animal in the waning wilderness of the Great Plains.
    Photo by Flickr/luxomni
  • Wild Idea cover
    In “Wild Idea,” Dan O’Brien explains how he worked to restore a natural balance to the Great Plains with free-range, grass-fed buffalo ranching.
    Photo courtesy University of Nebraska Press

  • buffalo family
  • Wild Idea cover

For more than forty years, endangered-species biologist Dan O’Brien has lived in the prairies of South Dakota. His book, Wild Idea (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), chronicles his experience with attempting to restore grass-fed, free-roaming buffalo to the grasslands of the northern plains through his own ethically run buffalo ranch, in order to influence the integrity of our food system, while trying to build a healthy life for his family in a big, beautiful and sometimes dangerous land. The following excerpt is from the first chapter.

Some summer nights, when I step out onto my ranch house porch, I am met by the immense, roiling waves of color from the northern lights. In other seasons I find coiled rattle-snakes or perhaps a wind so cold that skin will freeze in minutes.

By any economic ciphering, choosing the Great Plains for my home has caused me to slip behind my contemporaries who chose New England, or California, or the hills of Georgia. Still, like loving a drunk, I had little choice. For over forty years the prairies have been my home and I’ve shared them willingly with all of the species that call them home. It took many years for me to understand that this place is more than a chaotic jumble of species clawing at each other to assert themselves. It is a complex web of life clawing to keep its balance. I love the wind that stokes me as I sit on my front porch, even when it is too cold to endure. It is the wheezing breath of a single, huge, living thing, and I am a part of it.

Between 1972 and 1990 I worked as a biologist, first for the State of South Dakota and then for the Peregrine Fund, based at Cornell University’s famous Ornithology Laboratory. I had no formal training in biology so my duties were really the work of a technician, always seasonal, and always in the mountains and plains of the Intermountain West. The focus was on helping to reestablish the endangered peregrine falcon to the cliffs along the Rocky Mountain Front, but my mind always wandered to the entire ecosystem that the birds depended upon—the rolling, untold miles of grass that we call the Great Plains.

The falcons were raised from captive parents, first at Ithaca, New York, then at Fort Collins, Colorado, and finally at Boise, Idaho. My colleagues in the labs hatched the chicks and I picked them up at about one month of age. My job was to get the chicks to one of several dozen release sites then do my best to see that they learned to fly and hunt for themselves. It was wonderful work, freewheeling and physically challenging. I traveled by pickup, horseback, helicopter, and on foot to a different site every day. Almost everyone who helped in the effort to reestablish peregrine falcons was young, but it was more than youthful exuberance that kept us going. We were driven by the conviction that we were doing something of real value. As early soldiers in the environmental struggle that is still searching for definition we sensed that our lives were under siege by immense forces beyond our control.

DDT, used aggressively for decades by agribusiness, is a powerful insecticide that increased crop yields around the world. But it was clear to most of us that the benefits were grossly outweighed by the harm. The toxic chemical quickly spread into the entire food chain and did damage to all sorts of species, from soil microbes to human beings. In 1972, DDT was banned from use in the United States. By then it had nearly wiped out many bird species at the top of the food chain where the poison accumulated. The peregrine falcon, a pinnacle species, was decimated by DDT because it fouled up the falcon’s reproductive system. The first people to notice and respond were a small group of falconers who hunted with and kept peregrines in a quasi-captive state. Those of us with an acute interest quickly became involved. In the end it was a massive effort by thousands of people that brought the peregrine back from the brink of extinction. The peregrine falcon was placed on the endangered species list in 1970 and it stayed there until several hundred nesting pairs had returned to their old haunts. One day in the fall of 1994 I saw four peregrine falcons in one afternoon on the plains east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. I had never seen peregrines in that area before. I was on my way back to my little ranch on the northern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills after a summer of releasing peregrines.

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