Restoring the American Prairie with Grass-Fed Buffalo Ranching

article image
Photo by Flickr/luxomni
The American buffalo is an iconic animal in the waning wilderness of the Great Plains.

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.

Since April I’d been going strong, and because I was anxious to get home, I wasn’t even looking for peregrine falcons. But that day they seemed to be everywhere. During my entire life I had sighted only a few wild peregrine falcons and that afternoon I stumbled across four. It was a sign, and by the time I got home I had made up my mind that my work with the peregrine was finished.

When I got back to my ranch, I sat on my front porch and looked southeast toward where Bear Butte rose up from the prairie floor like a sentinel guarding the Black Hills. The butte looked lonely and the sight of it made me wonder what I would do with my life from that day forward. It would be another five years before the wheels of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked through the red tape to remove the peregrine falcon from the endangered species list, but it was already clear that the peregrines living on the eastern shoulder of the Rocky Mountains would be with us for at least a few more generations. The immediate crisis had passed.

The sun was going down and putting on a show for anyone who would take the time to watch. The colors in the autumn grasses pulsed with the breeze and the individual blades cast shadows on each other. As the grasses waved, the colors moved from gold to red, and I thought about all the life that depended on that mosaic. I thought about the mammals, from rodents to deer and antelope. I turned my best ear to the breeze and imagined that I could hear the movement of the billions of insects that supplied the baseline protein for the ground nesting birds for which the prairies are famous. The falcons were again preying on those birds and, at least for awhile, all those wheels would continue to turn.

Many other species are endangered or threatened and it occurred to me that I could become involved with protecting the black-footed ferrets, the eagle, swift fox, or any number of insects or grasses. But over the preceding eighteen years I had learned that concentrating on a single species was only treating the symptom of a problem. A compromised ecosystem is almost always the cause of distress for any species. I sat on my porch contemplating the rest of my life and I recalled much of what I had seen while traveling back and forth across the High Plains. Blowing topsoil, stinking feedlots, subsidized crops irrigated with precious water, and all the ancient, nonhuman inhabitants forced to eek out a living on the edges. The stars came up and, because it was autumn, Orion rose in the gap between Bear Butte and the Black Hills. It was one of those magical nights when time seems to slow to the speed of moving constellations.

My thoughts came to buffalo. They have long been an icon of this waning wilderness. During the last half of the nineteenth century, in one of the great human disgraces of all time, we slaughtered all but perhaps a thousand of the world’s buffalo—for sport, for a few body parts, and to help in the decimation of the Natives who relied on them. We nearly lost a unique species that thrived only in the center of the North American continent. I thought hard about that as a million stars moved across the sky in front of me. It made me sick to think of the injustice, and before Orion’s sword had swiveled to point at Harney Peak, I knew that my future would involve at least an attempt to put things right on the Great Plains and buffalo would be a part of that attempt.

In the nearly twenty years since that decision I have done my best to heal the portion of northern grasslands for which I am most responsible. Many mistakes were made as the result of my own failings, but also because the science of grassland protection and restoration is not well understood, because the vagrancies of climate and weather are not calibrated to match the span of a human life, and because resources on the Great Plains have always been sparse. I got off to a poor start by planting trees and hybrid grasses that were supposed to grow in a dry, harsh land. I signed up for government programs that encouraged such practices. But I should have realized that trees do not belong on the plains. If they could survive on their own they would have been here from the beginning. Trees need constant care, and the ones I planted dwindled and died. The hybrid grasses I planted had been bred to grow in almost any climate, but they had no evolutionary connection to the mammals and birds of the Great Plains and they too didn’t survive. Native birds and animals need the native plants they evolved with—the nutritious, hardy, deep-rooted perennials that have been nearly extirpated over the last century.

My effort began with twelve orphan buffalo, which in a few years built to a herd of fifty animals on my little ranch of twelve hundred acres. The beleaguered grasses responded favorably to the massaging of buffalo hooves and everything on the ranch, from the smallest sedges to the people, seemed to strengthen.

. . .

Killing 99.99 percent of all the buffalo in the world seems like it would have been a big job. You would think that nineteenth-century technology would have been hard pressed to accomplish it in a relatively short period. But it didn’t take much time and it didn’t cost much money. In purely economic terms I suppose that the horrific buffalo slaughter paid for itself. Even then, before I was seriously considering doing it, I knew that bringing back even a small percentage would cost a whole lot more than it cost to get rid of them all.

Years ago someone sent Jill and me a great cartoon. It was a sketch of a buffalo standing on an endless prairie, holding a cell phone to its ear. There was no indication who the buffalo was talking to, but I like to think that all of American was listening. “I love the convenience,” the buffalo was saying, “but the roaming charges are killing me.” It costs a lot of money for a buffalo to roam freely, but it may cost us even more to not have them roam freely. If you ever see a herd of a few hundred head moving peacefully under a wild, western sky, you will never be the same. Back during the very early days of buffalo on the Broken Heart Ranch, I would often make my way out to where I could see them grazing. I would sit and watch them moving on the land until I had had enough soul-fuel to keep going. But nursing an appreciation for buffalo doesn’t pay the bills, let alone the costs of restoration like the planting of native grasses or the resting of pastures needed to regain land health.

Jill and I were starved for cash, but we knew that simply selling our buffalo production would have made us undistinguishable from generations of livestock producers who had exploited the plains. I had seen the wild fear in the eyes of buffalo as they smell a slaughter plant for the first time. I had watched them standing in their own manure, being forced to eat subsidized grain products. Neither Jill nor I wanted anything to do with forcing buffalo through the cattle production model.

Because most buffalo producers come from cattle traditions, they instinctually do what they have done for generations. But buffalo are not cattle. They are evolutionary marvels that have existed for tens of thousands of years with no aid from humans. It is inhumane and wrongheaded to treat them as if they have been selected to endure the stresses of confinement. But it is not the death of buffalo that bothers me. Death is an unalterable fact for all of us. The only choice we have is how it comes.

When we began raising buffalo there was no commercial alternative to putting buffalo into feedlots, but buried in an obscure section of the USDA meat inspection act are a few sentences that allow for field harvest of animals under strict regulations. We knew then that among foodies and health food nuts there was a nascent market for grass-fed red meat—especially buffalo meat. But it was the obscure USDA regulation that opened the door to what would become Wild Idea Buffalo Company.

The Animal Industry Board of South Dakota inspects almost all the buffalo that are slaughtered in the state. The inspections are conducted under the same regulations as USDA rules, and when we called attention to the fact that field harvest was allowed, we were received with scrutiny but cooperation. Field harvest of buffalo had actually been allowed on a very limited basis for years. We would have to work under stringent operating procedures, but it was doable. We could haul the carcasses to a packing plant and have them cut, wrapped, and frozen for a reasonable charge.

So, after a few years of struggling to survive on a buffalo ranch, we stuck a toe into the ocean of commerce and arranged with South Dakota meat inspectors to harvest five prime two-year-old buffalo bulls in the pastures they had known for their entire lives. We found that they showed no perceivable signs of stress and we also discovered that companies like FedEx and ups could ship the frozen meat to our small list of family and friends with only slightly more effort on our part. There was even less profit in raising and marketing our buffalo this way than there was in loading them into trucks and selling them to strangers, but our consciences were clear.

After cashing those first tiny checks and receiving those positive reviews of the meat, I felt something odd shift inside me. I knew that we were onto something—if we could bring some money back to the ranch, the birds, mammals, insects, and plants would all feel the benefit. But I was bothered by the nagging realization that the sale of a few buffalo bulls would not change much in the wider world. My idea for reinvesting for the benefit of a tiny ranch was much too modest. Deep down I knew that our ranch was meaningless within the scale of the Great Plains. If the entire ecosystem was going to feel the effects of reinvestment of buffalo profits, then buffalo were going to have to experience a meaningful increase in population. Even then I knew that they would have to pay their own way back. What we didn’t realize was how high the price would be.

You can read about Dan’s buffalo atWild Idea Buffalo.

Read more about the health benefits of bison, and how to choose the best grass-fed meats.

Reprinted with permission from Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land by Dan O’Brien, and published by University of Nebraska Press, 2014.