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The Wrath of Atlas

By Dan O’Brien
Wild Idea buffalo roam free on the Great Plains, just as their ancestors did for millenia. A keystone species, they regenerate the prairie wherever they graze, replanting seeds of native grasses with their hooves and fertilizing as they go.
Photo by Jill O’Brien

The Northern Great Plains is like a beautiful but crazy lover, a lovely land with moods that can break your heart. All the seasons have their attractions, but there are possibilities for misery too. In winter it can turn dangerously cold, with winds capable of freezing skin in minutes. Spring is known for flooding. In summer, those swollen rivers can turn to dust. I tell people to visit in fall, when the leaves are turning, the buffalo are fat and happy, and the bird populations are at their apex.

My brother came out in late September of 2013, when the cottonwoods that surround my house were golden with leaves and the balmy days were giving way to cool nights. The birddogs tested the easy breeze with their noses as we sat on the deck overlooking the Cheyenne River, planning our grouse hunt and readying our gear. We paid no attention to the weather reports that hinted at a possible dip in temperature and increase in wind. By nightfall it was spitting snow.

I live in cattle country, but about 25 years ago I switched to buffalo, which roamed the plains for thousands of years, evolving strategies and physical characteristics to cope with the severe Great Plains conditions. They became an animal that was nearly impervious to cold, heat, floods, and drought. My family’s mission was to restore the land’s wild balance, a goal that began with buffalo. By 2013, we had 400 buffalo on the flat area above the house, where they grazed on the native grass we’d replanted. The buffalo could handle the vagaries of this land, I explained to my brother as the wind began to shake the ancient cottonwoods.

The next morning, the cottonwoods were still whipping outside the kitchen window as we drank our coffee and joked that this little weather hiccup might make our hunt challenging. It blew all that day and the snow came thick on the gusts. When we woke up the next day, the trees were bowed by snow and our joking ceased. Then the limbs began to break.

The 2013 Atlas blizzard hit South Dakota freakishly early, in October, downing fences and power lines and killing tens of thousands of cattle.
Photo by Jill O’Brien

My daughter and her husband, who live a couple miles north of my house, were in Nebraska visiting his family when the storm hit. They couldn’t make it home—the interstate highway was closed—but they had milk cows, pigs, dogs, and a few barn cats that needed feeding. My brother and I tried getting out through the driveway, but huge, shattered cottonwood limbs tangled in three-foot-deep drifts made it impassable. The wind was howling and we barely made it back to the house. As soon as we were inside, the lights blinked twice and died. All that night we sat in the dark and listened to the wind.

Even as the snowdrifts reached six feet deep the next day, I had faith in the buffalo. Their genetics had fought fights like this before. The neighbors’ cattle were a different story. There were thousands of them surrounding our ranch. We had no contact with the outside world, but I didn’t need the radio to know there was serious death in that driven snow.

By the fourth morning I was worried about the animals at my daughter’s house, and we were stir-crazy. The snow had diminished but the wind still raged. My brother and I decided to try to hike to their house anyway. That was the most strenuous hike I had ever done— two hours through thigh-deep snow with a north wind shutting down our lungs. But we got the animals fed and started home with the wind at our backs. That was when I noticed a black buffalo horn hooking out of a snowdrift. I didn’t say anything, but I was haunted all that night and beyond.

When we finally dug our way out three days later, we found that there were eight buffalo (about 2 percent of our herd) buried in that drift. I was sick with the discovery but heartened to see the rest of the herd grazing calmly through the snow a half mile north. It took days to realize how lucky we were. Some of our neighbors had lost their entire herds in the storm the weathermen had named Atlas. Over 100,000 cattle died in all.

Perfectly adapted to harsh Great Plains weather, free-roaming Wild Idea buffalo can graze through the ice.
Photo by Jill O’Brien

For the next week we kept the backhoe busy, burying our neighbors’ animals. The last to be buried were our own. My son-in-law came to stand beside me. “Did you notice anything funny about them?” he asked. I was heartsick and stood staring at the pile of fresh dirt on the snow. I shook my head. “They were all old females,” he said. “All their calves survived. The ones that died were the ones that wolves would have gotten.” He laid a hand on my shoulder, then climbed back into the backhoe. “Wolves,” I whispered to the warming breeze. When I raised my eyes, a group of sharp-tailed grouse rocketed through the pale blue sky. “In a perfect world,” I thought.

Dan O’Brien and his wife, Jill, co-founded Wild Idea Buffalo Company in 1998, now managed day-to-day by his daughter, Jilian Jones, and his son-in-law, Colton Jones. Together they raise buffalo on the Cheyenne River Ranch in South Dakota. Besides being a rancher and falconer, O’Brien is a wildlife biologist and the author of six novels and four works of nonfiction.