Buffalo Are Back

By Dan O'Brien

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

Fifteen years ago I spent most of my time with rattling, smelly farm machinery, either being severely jarred as I drove up and down the fields or lying under it trying to fix something. Our South Dakota ranch supported a couple hundred beef cattle and all summer long we rolled hay into huge, round bales in the blistering heat, and all through the freezing winter we rolled the bales back out on the ground so the cows wouldn’t starve. The smell of diesel fuel permeated my clothes and the skin beneath my fingernails was tattooed with axle grease.

One cold, snowy day, just after Christmas in 1996, as I lay under a tractor that wouldn’t start, it occurred to me that what this ranch really needed was an animal that could thrive without my help. I rolled out from under the tractor and rocked up onto my knees. Squinting against the brilliant snow, I tried to imagine our ranch before Europeans came to the Great Plains. I saw buffalo moving silently across the horizon, turning grass to healthy, red meat with no clattering of engines or fog of diesel fumes.

The Great Plains is the heart of our country. But like a human heart that has been stressed by abuse, it has been weakened and is in need of restoration. When Europeans first arrived here they found lean and healthy native people. They found seemingly endless pastures of indigenous grasses, huge skies darkened by migrating birds and about 60 million buffalo. American buffalo, also known as bison, were slaughtered in massive numbers in the late 1800s. By 1900 they were near extinction with only about 400 animals remaining. With conservation, their population has slowly rebounded and now there are about 350,000 on public and private lands.

Today the Plains are broken up by fences that hold cattle destined for feedlots. Most of the native prairie has been plowed under, leaving the land bare to the ravages of wind and water erosion. Native grasses have been replaced with government-subsidized commodity crops, such as corn, cotton and wheat. These crops grow with the aid of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that run off into the water. With less available habitat, native animals and birds are being squeezed out. To complete the circle, most of the subsidized corn is fed to the cattle that replaced the buffalo.

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