Dear Friends - I have neglected my duties as a blogger, as I have been traveling around to book stores and conferences doing readings from my new book. It is a memoir about the last ten years of our lives and the life of Wild Idea Buffalo Company. It is peopled with folks that many of you know from your connection to Wild Idea. Here are the first few pages from chapter one. Very Best - Dan
Buffalo & Family In a Difficult Land
Some nights, when I step out onto my ranch house porch, I am met by the immense, roiling waves of color from the northern lights. But in other seasons I find coiled rattlesnakes or perhaps a wind so cold that skin can freeze in minutes.
By any economic ciphering, choosing the Great Plains for my home has caused me to slip behind my contemporaries who chose New England, or California, or the hills of Georgia. Still, like loving a drunk, I had little choice. For over forty years the prairies have been my home and I’ve shared them willingly with all of the species that also called them home. It took many years for me to understand that this place is not only a chaotic jumble of species clawing at each other to assert themselves, but a complex web of life clawing to keep its balance. I love the wind that stokes me as I sit on my front porch, even when it is too cold to endure. It is the wheezing breath of a single, huge, living thing, and I am a part of it.
For the years between 1972 and 1990 I worked as a biologist, first for the State of South Dakota and then for the Peregrine Fund, based at Cornell University’s famous Ornithology Laboratory. I had no formal training in biology so my duties were really the work of a technician, always seasonal, always in the mountains and plains of the Intermountain West. The focus was on helping to reestablish the endangered peregrine falcon to the cliffs along the Rocky Mountain Front, but my mind always wandered to the entire ecosystem that the birds depended upon – the rolling, untold miles of grass that we call the Great Plains.
The falcons were raised from captive parents, first at Ithaca, New York, then Fort Collins, Colorado, and finally at Boise, ID. My colleagues in the labs hatched the chicks and I picked them up at about one month of age. My job was to get the chicks to one of several dozen release sites, then to do my best to see that they learned to fly and hunt for themselves. It was wonderful work, freewheeling and physically challenging. I traveled by pickup, horseback, helicopter, and on foot to a different site every day. Almost everyone who helped in the effort to reestablish peregrine falcons was young, but it was more than youthful exuberance that kept us going. We were driven by the conviction that we were doing something of real value. Early soldiers in the environmental struggle that is still searching for definition, we sensed that our lives were under siege by immense forces beyond our control.
DDT, used aggressively for decades by agri-business, is a powerful insecticide that increased crop yields around the world. But it was clear to most of us that the benefits were grossly outweighed by the harm. The toxic chemical quickly spread into the entire food chain and did damage to all sorts of species, from soil microbes to human beings. In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States. By then it had nearly wiped out many bird species at the top of the food chain where the poison accumulated. The peregrine falcon, a pinnacle species, was decimated by DDT because it fouled up the falcon’s reproductive system. The first people to notice and to respond were a small group of falconers who hunted with and kept peregrines in a quasi captive state. Those of us with that acute interest quickly became involved. But in the end it was a massive effort by thousands of people that brought them back from the brink of extinction.
The peregrine falcon was placed on the endangered species list in 1970 and they remained there until several hundred nesting pairs had returned to their old haunts. One day in the fall of 1994 I saw four peregrine falcons in one afternoon on the plains east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. I had never seen peregrines in that area before. I was on my way back to my little ranch on the northern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills after a summer of releasing peregrines. Since April I’d been going strong, and since I was anxious to get home, I wasn’t even looking for peregrine falcons. But that day, they seemed to be everywhere. In my entire life I had sighted only a few wild peregrine falcons and that afternoon I stumbled across four. It was a sign, and by the time I got home I had made up my mind that my work with the peregrine was finished.
When I got back to my ranch house, I sat on my front porch and looked southeast toward where Bear Butte rose up from the prairie floor like a sentinel guarding the Black Hills. The butte looked lonely and the sight of it made me wonder what I would do with my life from that day forward. It would be five years before the wheels of the US Fish and Wildlife Service worked through the red tape and removed the peregrine falcon from the endangered species list, but it was already clear that the peregrines that lived on the eastern shoulder of the Rocky Mountains would be with us for at least a few more generations. The immediate crisis had passed.
The sun was going down and putting on a show for anyone who would take the time to watch. The colors in the autumn grasses pulsed with the breeze and the individual blades cast shadows on each other. As the grasses waved, the colors moved from gold to red, and I thought about all the life that depended on that mosaic. I thought about the mammals, from rodents to deer and antelope. I turned my best ear to the breeze and imagined that I could hear the movement of the billions of insects that supplied the base-line protein for the ground nesting birds for which the prairies are famous. The falcons were again preying on those birds and, at least for awhile, all those wheels would continue to turn.
There were plenty of other species that were endangered or threatened and it occurred to me that I could become involved with black-footed ferrets, eagles, swift fox, or any number of insects or grasses. But over the proceeding eighteen years I had learned that concentrating on a single species was only treating the symptom of a problem. The cause of a species distress was almost always a compromised ecosystem. I sat on my porch contemplating the rest of my life and I recalled much of what I had seen while I traveled back and forth across the High Plains. Blowing top soil, stinking feedlots, subsidized crops irrigated with precious water, and all the ancient, non-human inhabitants forced to eek out a living on the edges. The stars came up and, because it was autumn, Orion rose in the gape between Bear Butte and the Black Hills. It was one of those magic nights when time seems to slow to the speed of moving constellations.
My thoughts came to buffalo. They have long been an icon of this waning wilderness. During the last half of the nineteenth century, in one of the great human disgraces of all time, we slaughtered all but perhaps a thousand of the world’s buffalo – for sport, a few body parts, and the help decimate the Natives. We nearly lost a unique species that thrived only in the center of the American continent. I thought hard about that as I sat on the front porch with a million stars moving across the sky in front of me. It made me sick to think of the injustice and before Orion’s sword had swiveled to point at Harney Peak, I knew that my future would involve at least an attempt to put things right on the Great Plains and that buffalo would be part of that attempt.