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Healthy Prairie Pasture

A healthy pasture on the Northern mixed-grass prairie is not just a homogeneous expanse of grass. In our country, a healthy pasture is not smooth, flat or small. It is not cultivated or inter-seeded with invasive, hybrid or genetically modified plants. It is home to 2,095 species of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, butterflies, birds, grasses, sedges and wildflowers. It is not sprayed with fertilizer, herbicides or insecticides. There are herbivores grazing these healthy pastures of the Northern Great Plains. For many reasons, a healthy pasture is nothing like a golf course. It is much more complicated.

Dan O'BrienGrasses and forbs have been growing on what is now our bison ranch since the glaciers receded. That is when the ponderous process of evolution began. The ancestors of bison followed the receding ice and the nascent vegetation for centuries, as driven by natural selection, they got to work determining how they could use each other to survive and thrive. Of course, that process is still functioning though, through human eyes, it usually seems stagnate. The species on the Northern Great Plains have evolved strategies for thriving in spite of very cold winters and hot summers – blizzards, droughts, wild fires and merciless wind. The tenacity of these Northern Great Plains species is a scream of defiance in the face of marching industrialization. 

Included in the evolutionary outcomes that this cauldron of life is brewing up for our education, is a specific set of behaviors for each of these estimated 2,095 species. Each plant waits to bloom and pushes its energy above ground level, for the perfect combination of moisture and temperature, most birds fly south for the winter, ducks go flightless when the summer vegetation will hide them, rodents gather bison wool to line their nests, antelope gather into herds when the conditions are right, prairie dogs estivate. And the bison move. 

Bison are famous for their desire to roam. I’ve made a project of watching them move and concluded that the movement of bison for miles over the prairie is not a case of random wondering. I’ve watched a herd of several hundred dozing on a hillside for a whole day before one older cow stands up, stretches, and rousts her calf to its feet. Then another stands up, followed by a half dozen more. Sometimes they begin to drift as the rest of the herd wakes up and meanders in the same direction. Other times they jump to their feet in a way that makes you wonder if they were dreaming of wolves. I’ve seen them lope for miles and suddenly come to a stop on a high mesa and lower their heads in unison as they begin to graze.

When I investigate, I find that there is a preponderance of one specie of grass or congregation of a certain forb on that mesa. In the spring or fall, it might be green needle or western wheat grass. In the summer, it is more likely to be one of the blue stems or gramma grass if their chosen grazing spot holds a little more water than the surrounding prairie it could even be canary grass. In winter, they might stop on the south facing slope that grows thick with yucca. The old female who led the herd to that particular place remembered it from the last time conditions were like that day. She knew that the vegetation that grows in that place is ripe, energy rich and tasty on that particular day. It is one of the subtle, but very important traits, that makes her a bison. She might lead the herd to a patch of Indian grass, big blue stem, porcupine grass, western wheatgrass, buffalo grass, milkweed, wild rye, tender shoots of one of the native sages, Indian paintbrush, June grass, leadplant, needle and thread grass, pasque flowers, smart weed, prairie drop seed, purple coneflower, fescue, sand reed, scarlet mallow, serviceberry, lupine, switchgrass, blue grass, or a patch of red cedar that is just right for rubbing their old fur off in the springtime. Access to all those plants and many more is the reason large pastures are critical. 

Dan O'Brien

The importance of bison moving freely on the landscape could not be more critical, not only for the bison but also for the amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, pollinators and the plants themselves. While bison were evolving to utilize all the plants on the prairie, the plants were evolving to thrive under the uniquely shaped, chopping hooves of many bison. It is all part of a healthy pasture. It is all more elegant than simply arranging for an animal to stand on green grass.


Photo Credit: Jill O'Brien

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25 comments

  • I a’ways learn something from your essays…but even more so, I feel something.
    Thank you.

    Casey Cogburn
  • What more can I say…….Thank You.

    Paul
  • Dan, I think I understand your concerns about handing over this pristine patch of prairie into the care of future generations, not knowing if that management team will adhere to the examples you’ve set from your own personal knowledge base. I read this article a few days ago that talks about concepts along those lines.

    https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/7/7/21311027/covid-19-climate-change-global-warming-shifting-baselines

    because you have many decades of intimate experience with nature and climate processes, you probably know about “generational amnesia” when considering shifting baselines syndrome of ecological/biological conditions. to quote from the article: “evidence of generational amnesia, “where knowledge extinction occurs because younger generations are not aware of past biological conditions.” and another term: “another form of shifting baselines syndrome: personal amnesia, “where knowledge extinction occurs as individuals forget their own experience.”

    nobody needs to light a fire under you, not my point here. if others are fully awake and knowledgable about climate change, we should be, too.
    Wild Idea Buffalo shows us what should be occurring on a much broader scale. I think it’s time everybody woke up! it’s getting late!

    wonderful blog by the way.

    Blake O'Quinn
  • This is a wonderful collaborative piece with words and images. Poetic interface. i am sharing it with my Northern Great Plains friends of WWF. I love the work you do and the passion and purpose withing Wild Idea. Thank you. Live long & prosper.

    Susan Jorgensen
  • Great and insightful writing Dan! Thank you. I’m currently enjoying a book entitled “Prairie” by Candace Savage. A very good read in great detail about the North American prairie. You probably know it. Best wishes to you and the family. Doing well here in SC with a freezer stocked with WIB bison. Tonight: flat irons!! Cheers to the O’Brien’s, Jones’es and WIB family!! Thank you for all you do!

    Chris and Kim
  • Another wonderful piece, especially………She might lead the herd to a patch of Indian grass, big blue stem, porcupine grass, western wheatgrass, buffalo grass, milkweed, wild rye, tender shoots of one of the native sages, Indian paintbrush, June grass, leadplant, needle and thread grass, pasque flowers, smart weed, prairie drop seed, purple coneflower, fescue, sand reed, scarlet mallow, serviceberry, lupine, switchgrass, blue grass, or a patch of red cedar that is just right for rubbing their old fur off in the springtime………Thank you again Dan. Stay safe and strong.
    pat
  • I love these posts as much as I love your products. Which is a lot.

    Susan
  • Dan, you’re a living, walking, breathing advertisement for proponents of cloning—we could really use a few dozen more of you!

    James E. Swab
  • Many thanks for the insights and information. I daresay all habitats would be better, and so the world and we would be, if left to Nature. Thank you for not only teaching us, but showing us and living in a way that’s good for the prairies, the animals and their environment. Would that we all did so.

    Cheves Leland
  • Always a Inspiring pleasure Viewing your writes and pics. We here in far Northern California are getting some new Range Meat Vendors shipping here. That indicates to me that our meat supply off the shelf isn’t so hot. I’ve felt that for many years, it got contaminated by all the care and caution necessary to raise meat in the the country.

    Tom
  • As always, Dan’s writings are prophetic and spot on. And the other inhabitants of that great Northern prairie were the Aboriginal, Native tribes. I have just recently discovered “Empire of the Summer Moon” , by author S.C. Gwynne. An excellent read, and disturbing, all at the same time. A tragedy of the brutal conflicts of the Anglo European expansion into these sacred prairies.

    Bruce Tuxhorn
  • We have read all your books and other writings and you really have had quite a good and difficult time fighting for the love of your life….the land. Thanks for sharing her beauty and intricacies.

    Gigi
  • Dan, glad you’re still at it and expanding somewhat as I understand it with the scope of your organization. Hope some other ranching operations in the area decide to adopt your production model. I’m aiming to be back in that neck of the prairie in a few weeks. Selling my family house to a relative and moving back to South Dakota. Hope to run into you out there some time and go hawking perhaps. After a goshawk or two I’ll be eager to dip my toes into the world of longwings.

    Eric Harrold
  • Thank you for your years of observation and now sharing some of it with us so we can understand nature’s beautiful dance.

    Teryl Cruse
  • Great essay — thank you!

    Joyce Cross

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