Energy Today: Buffalo for the Broken Heart

Written by Dan O’Brien

On the Great Plains the business of sustaining oneself usually ends up having something to do with agriculture, and agriculture usually means cattle grazing. The problem is that cattle grazing is not subject to generally accepted business practices. For example, once every year or so I used to get into a cattle deal together with my neighbor to the south. We’d buy some yearlings and try to put some weight on them for resale, or we’d get some old cows that were about ready to give birth and try to make a buck on the calves. Like everyone, we’d do our best to buy when the market was low and sell when it was high, and give the cattle good care that would turn our expenses into profit. But our plans almost never worked out and we resigned ourselves to the fact that capitalist enterprise on the Great Plains has its own set of rules. After a while, when we made a decision to try one of these schemes, my neighbor would sigh and say, “I sure hope we break even on this deal. I need the money”….


I came to hate cattle. They were not the reason I had come to this place, anyway. They were just the only way anyone out here had ever thought to try to pay the bills. Since I was a little boy I’d been attracted to the wildness. It was for that reason I came to western South Dakota in the first place. It was the grouse, ducks, deer, antelope, hawks, rabbits, songbirds, shorebirds, fox, and coyotes that had lured me. 

My first job in western South Dakota was as an employee of the state’s Department of Game, Fish, and Parks. In the early 1970s the agency had received federal money to study birds of prey but had no one on staff who could tell one hawk from the next. They found me studying English literature at the University of South Dakota. From the beginning I saw that the welfare of all the Great Plains’ wildlife species depended ultimately on grass.  The health of the grass dictated the health of the birds I was studying and, ultimately, all the animals on the prairie food chain. As part of my job I studied grazing systems that provided superior habitat for the wild things.



Almost all the pastures I looked at were overgrazed. But some grazing is necessary, both economically and in the interests of wildlife habitat. I learned that the health of the pasture is not only a function of grazing pressure, but of how that pressure is applied. Ten years later, when I got the chance, I divided my new ranch into nine pastures and rotated the cattle through them quickly, because, being domestic, and thus deprived of the virtues of selective evolution, they weren’t suited for grazing the pastures evenly. They didn’t utilize all the grasses and forbs unless forced to, and when allowed to wander freely, they concentrated—that is to say, ruined—huge quantities of grass that wild species need. On the Great Plains grass is synonymous with wildlife habitat. When healthy, grass supplies food, shelter, escape cover, and a place to reproduce for almost everything that lives out here. Humans are no exception.

I didn’t graze my ranch the way most [other ranchers] grazed theirs. I “left” grass and hay in the field. I rotated the cows from pasture to pasture to mimic the action of the wild herbivores that had become rare or extinct long before I came on the scene. Buffalo, elk, wild sheep, deer, and antelope moved quickly through a prairie with no barriers. Since cattle arrived on the northern Great Plains they have utilized the pasture unnaturally. Cattle tend to spread out and wander when they graze, ignoring the grass species they don’t like and consuming their favorites as if they were picking through a box of chocolates. Eventually the best grasses, called “ice cream species” by range managers, begin to disappear and the less palatable species dominate, leaving the entire pasture degraded. Great Plains plants evolved to be the healthiest when herds trample and graze them intensively and then move on. The large native herbivore, the buffalo, evolved to stick close together, initially as a form of protection from predators, and so give the grasses of the Great Plains exactly what they need to thrive. And when the grasses thrive, everything thrives….

[On the other hand,] buffalo did a lot of things we’d never seen cattle do. All [of our buffalo] could usually be found in a tight herd, concentrated within the dimensions of a football field…. They did not scatter out and graze like cattle. Instead, they stayed in one spot for hours. They would lounge and graze, sleep and chew their cud until, for some unknowable reason, they would decide to move. The next time we looked they would be gone. If we went to search for them, we might find them a mile away, relaxing again like they had been there all along. That way of moving remined me a flock of birds. Who decides when it’s time to move, who gives the command for the flock to turn? When it came time to find new pasture, the buffalo seemed not to have singular identities. Their herd instinct took over and they moved as one. And when they moved like that, the impact of the herd on the land was greater than the sum of the individual animals. It’s called hoof action and is an essential part of the prairie ecosystem. Cattle’s hooves seem somehow to impact the land differently. Of course that makes sense, since our grass evolved to thrive under buffalo hooves, not cattle hooves. Only buffalo are a force that can match the scale of this land. Only buffalo have the power to massage this land back to health.


Like the wild animals they are, they also moved a lot at night. Places we’d never seen them graze were scatted with their sign in the morning. Unlike cattle, who dwell under trees for the shade in the summer and the wind protection in winter, we never found them spending time in the wooded draws. As a result, the ground was not compacted and barren under the trees. The rare wooded plants of the prairie were not stressed the way they were when the pastures were grazed by cattle. In just one summer of buffalo grazing the bushes grew more lush than I’d ever seen them and our grouse and songbird populations seemed to soar. The buffalo also refused to stand around water holes like cattle insist upon doing. The grass around the ponds was thick and unsullied. The water was not fouled by animal waste. The ponds became better places for other animals to live....

​By the early winter of that first year I was coming to believe that buffalo were more than just another missing component of a healthy northern plains. I was wondering if I hadn’t stumbled onto THE missing component, the absence of which creates the snag that unravels the tapestry. This wallowing behavior was a case in point. It is a curious phenomenon that meshes one of this land’s great short-comings, lack of water, with the buffalo’s unique abilities to find water and to bring it to the surface. Consider that a year after the buffalo’s return to my ranch they had stomped, wallowed, gored, and otherwise excavated perhaps hundreds of small water holes that had disappeared with the last of the great herds. Consider that cattle had not only killed the brush in the draws and denuded the banks of the few large water holes but also allowed the old buffalo wallows to seal over and so deprived all the other species of what … was otherwise arid land.

Was the increase in bird life on the ranch a partial result of a different, evolutionarily more compatible kind of grazing? Did the buffalo’s way of moving quickly from one part of the pasture to another affect the grass more positively than the wandering of domestic livestock? Was the entire matrix of the ranch’s ecosystem improved by the simple conversion back to large herbivores that had evolved to live here? In my heart I was coming to believe that the answer to all of these questions was “yes.” I wanted to shout it to the skies, but I had learned long before that when profound questions are asked of the heart, the answers are best kept to yourself.

The lives and the pedigrees of my friends and neighbors were heavily vested in the belief that this land is “cattle country.” In the view of some, their progenitors sacrificed everything to wrench the northern plains away from the dark forces of wildness, and they do not want to hear that the salvation of the land, and perhaps of the economy, might lay in a retrenching, a falling back to the greater wisdom of evolution. 

AES Editors also suggest: 
Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program 2020 Evaluation Report, Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute


Originally published with the American Energy Society


Share this post

Learn More