Buffalo Are Back

By Dan O'Brien

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

Our buffalo ranch is located on the edge of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation and it was my friend Ed Iron Cloud, a Lakota, who first told me that humans and buffalo are related. “At one time,” he said, “we all lived underground in a huge cavern.” We were riding in a pickup truck and I looked over to see if he was serious. “The humans were afraid to leave the cave.” Ed’s face told me that he was very serious indeed.

As the legend goes, the buffalo left the cave and when they came back, they told the people how wonderful life was on the Plains. “Brother Buffalo tried to convince us to come out onto the grass but we held back until they promised to protect us.” Ed was nodding his head and looking out to the rolling hills. He did not look at me but he shrugged his shoulders. “We made a deal,” he said.

If the humans would continue to respect the buffalo as their relations, then the buffalo would supply everything that humans needed to thrive aboveground. So the humans moved out onto the Plains and the buffalo supplied building material, clothing and food to the humans. “When the white men came,” Ed said, “the promise was broken.” Buffalo were slaughtered by the millions for their tongues, their hides or just for sport. The people in the cities ate fattened cattle and pigs. “They did not want buffalo meat,” Ed said. “It was the beginning of all our problems. The humans no longer respected the buffalo as brothers and so the buffalo no longer took care of the humans.”

But the promise shows signs of new life. Respect for buffalo is slowly growing. What we are learning is what we should have known all along: landscapes are made up of suites of species that have joined with each other in an eternal dance, driven by their need to thrive. Every species’ strategy for survival creates a counterstrategy by all the other species. When viewed over time we call this interlocking two-step of strategies “balance.” When that dance is interrupted, balance and health become impossible.

To take 60 million unique herbivores out of an ecosystem made up primarily of grass is an interruption of galactic proportions. To return a few of them to that land is a solid step toward sustainability and a secure environmental future. For 150 years no buffalo moved on the hillside across from my house. But now Blondie moves her group through the greening bluestem. They look healthy and strong on that hillside and they make me feel the same way. Because we’re taking care of and respecting the buffalo, they have once again begun to take care of us.

Author and rancher Dan O’Brien is committed to grass-fed buffalo and restoring the American grasslands. His next book, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, will be published in September.

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