By Dan O'Brien
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.
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.
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.