Buffalo Are Back

By Dan O'Brien

Why this American original is returning to our lands and our tables.

We started our buffalo ranch with 13 orphans. We got them from a neighbor who had a herd of 800. From the first day, Jill and I could tell that they were different from cattle. The babies were not interested in grain. They wanted only grass and they grazed in a tight, fast-moving herd. Cattle tend to spread out and graze their favorite grasses until they are gone. Our buffalo ate a little of everything they came to. Like your lawnmower, they trimmed the grass to a reasonable height and moved on. And like your lawn, the prairie responded by growing up thick and healthy in their wake. Their hooves knocked the grass seed off, disturbed the ground just enough to plant the seed, and then they moved and gave the grass a chance to germinate. Our buffalo didn’t need trees for shade or brush to protect them from the winter wind—they were perfectly suited to the climate. They stayed clear of the wooded draws where the cattle had tromped the ground so hard that almost nothing would grow. The result was that my slice of the prairie began to regenerate. By the second spring after those first 13 buffalo came to our ranch I began to spot brown thrashers and rufous-sided towhees nesting. These birds are native to South Dakota, but are rarely seen where cattle are pastured. In my 25 years of raising cattle I had never seen those birds on my ranch during nesting season.

Now, when I come inside after a long day, I don’t smell diesel fuel. I might smell the beginnings of Jill’s green chile stew. It’s a hearty blend of Anaheim peppers roasted on the grill, toasted cumin and the sweet, rich taste of buffalo meat that’s been seared in a cast-iron skillet—meat that has a more intense, deep flavor than beef. Over the years Jill has compiled hundreds of delicious ways to cook buffalo, so if it’s not her green chile stew it might be the seductive scent of buffalo steak grilled over a wood fire that beckons me back to the house in the evening.

Today the Plains are making a slow but steady recovery. Part of that recovery is due to bringing buffalo back. Now, I watch Blondie, one of my original 13, lead her daughters and their calves across a distant greening flat. I notice that the green has a tint of blue. The dusty blue is bluestem grass that was nearly extinct in much of the Plains. Blondie and her herd savor the bluestem and move on.

What I see from my window is happening all over the Great Plains. Government agencies and conservation groups are still working to strengthen buffalo populations. The Nature Conservancy keeps a herd of about 2,500 at their Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma. “Our mission is to recreate the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. We do prescribed burns and we keep buffalo on the Preserve to accomplish that,” says Harvey Payne, who was the director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve for 18 years. “Tallgrass prairie was shaped by climate, by fire and by buffalo grazing. The tallgrass prairie ceased to function as an ecosystem when the buffalo were killed off.” But true restoration depends on private ranchers. And those ranchers depend on a demand for buffalo meat from consumers.

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