The Great Plains Bargain
by Dan O'Brien
There are over 9 million species on this earth and, with little variation, we share the same genetic material with all of them. From where I sit, I can see tens of thousands of acres of American grassland. Beyond the far ridgelines lie many thousands more. It is 15 miles to the next human dwelling. The sky and the distance are obvious defining elements, but I have lived here a long time and, I see the prairie species that I am related to. I see hundreds of grass species and the ground-nesting birds that need them; coyotes, badgers and prairie dogs; mule deer like statues in the draws; whitetail deer and turkeys; raptors soaring overhead. I can hear the chewing of insects and feel the wriggle of microbes beneath the ground. We have all evolved together and depend on each other. We are family. It is a cosmology that applies the world over, but no landscape reveals that truth more clearly than these Great Plains of North America. The mutual relationships outside my window are uncountable and every one is personally important to me. But this land’s most iconic interspecies relationship is the one between human beings and the American Bison.
The prairie outside my window is vast in human terms but small and imperiled on the scale of the Great Plains. The truth is that big green John Deere tractors are chewing at the edges as I type. While the tractors busy themselves destroying vital relationships, a few of us out here practice wild husbandry as a way to preserve a genuine connection to the land. We grope for a modern lexicon and are finally forced to explain our relationship to bison in agricultural and business terms: carrying capacity, grazing rate, feed conversion, forage production, cost of protein and the bottom line. For thousands of years the dominant culture here believed that if they respected and honored the bison, the bison would provide food, shelter and enough spiritual support for the culture to survive and thrive. They believed that the relationship between humans and bison was self-sustaining, mutually beneficial and circular. But this world changed when Europeans, with their insatiable hunger for gold and land, swarmed onto the Great Plains. By 1900, almost all the bison were gone and the Great Plains had begun to tip toward the entropy that has been gaining momentum ever since.
For a thousand reasons, the massive grassland ecosystem in the center of North America is tumbling toward chaos. We cast about desperately for a way to stave off the death spiral. We want to strike out at the symptoms of our mismanagement. We look to diminishing water tables, irresponsible use of pesticides and herbicides, or the release of carbon into the atmosphere from plowing up native grass. In our panic, we disregard the wisdom of simpler times. We forget to respect and honor our family.
Some would say that saving the bison from extinction is enough, but it isn’t. A bison is not defined simply by weight, shape and appearance. I once argued that a peregrine falcon that is unable to fly is not a peregrine falcon at all–a peregrine falcon is defined by flight, speed and the natural sphere in which it moves. The same is true of bison. A bison unable to roam is not a real bison. Confined in a feedlot, eating grain that they did not evolve to eat, and deprived of the ability to move freely is not the way we would treat family, yet that is how 95 percent of the buffalo in North America are raised. They are forced into the cattle-feedlot model of commodity production, and the result is that most buffalo live poorly, die poorly and are unable to nourish us as effectively as they could.
The ancient bargain was that bison would supply us with spiritual connection and near-perfect nutrition if we treated them with honor and respect. By not upholding our end of the bargain, we do not allow the bison to hold up its end–there is nothing uplifting about a bison standing in a feedlot, and the nutrition gleaned from its meat is a poor substitute for the meat of a free-roaming, grass-fed bison.
Outside my window, for another generation at least, the grassy hills roll to infinity. The bison move as they always have, with buffalo birds whirling from the grass in front of them. A golden eagle watches from an eroding butte. Antelope stand and stare. The bison are coming to feed me, and in return, I will do everything I can to protect them from the big green tractors and feedlots. Our great family is coming together once again. I watch the cedar-lined canyons where I have seen bison materialize before. If I am quiet and calm, they will appear at any moment.
Dan O'Brien founded Wild Idea Buffalo Company in 1999. He has worked as an endangered species biologist and has written several novels and memoirs about the Great Plains. He lives on the Cheyenne River Ranch where he raises buffalo with his wife, Jill. Together they manage Wild Idea Buffalo Company in nearby Rapid City. His latest book is Wild Idea, Buffalo, and Family in a Difficult Land.