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How Buffalo Taught Me to be a Responsible Capitalist

Dan O'Brien

I belong to the Baby Boomer Generation and if you are a Millennial, Gen-X, or Gen-Z person, I owe you an apology. My cohorts and I are the ones that didn’t adequately stand up to the forces of ignorance and greed that are killing everything that is wild. But we were the first generation that understood that what humans were doing to wild things was suicidal. We are culpable for knuckling under in the face of the power behind that insanity and I’m sorry for the part I played in that tragedy.

In the spring of 1970, I was the chairman of the first Earth Day on the campus of a little Ohio college. I didn’t know what should happen on an Earth Day and neither did my committee. We planned a small parade, some speeches from supportive professors, and a debate of the pressing questions of the times: the Vietnam War, equal rights for women and minorities, and the abuses of nature by industrial agriculture. Passions ran high in the spring of 1970 and those three topics merged into an outpouring of reaction toward what became known as “the establishment.”

It seems silly now, but back then only a few people believed that DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other agricultural chemicals were killing nature. Those of us who had been raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s on and around Ohio farmlands knew that something was wrong. The small drainage that ran through our little family farm had a funny smell and the beaches of Lake Erie sported skull and crossbones signs put up by the board of health. There were scarcely enough songbirds to support my hobby of bird watching.

I was reluctantly pushed forward by the student Earth Day committee to represent them on the debate stage. My opponent was, Colonel Fred Graff, a hometown war hero, arch conservative, regional postmaster, and chairman of the local draft board. He was a tall, imposing man, with years of experience as a public speaker. I was a clueless 22-year-old college jock whose only credential was that I liked to walk around outdoors and watch birds. I was a Middle American, middle class kid who had been raised to respect authority. I was psyched out days before the debate, and Colonel Graff crushed me. To his well- reasoned and clinical appraisal of the state of the world, I could only babble about beauty, respect for all life, and my naïve feelings about how the world should be. He dismissed me as a dreamer and, in the face of his confident, consumptive, pseudo-patriotic vision, I suffered a total breakdown of audacity.

About a hundred people turned out for that first Earth Day and, though campus anti-war demonstrations were gaining strength as President Nixon began his second year in office, few people in the crowd that day understood the far greater threats our civilization was imposing on the environment: polluted air, polluted water, loss of species diversity, human- caused climate change, and out-of-control capitalism. Still, those few innocent souls looked to me to lead them and letting them down was one of the great failures of my life.

I’ve spent the last 45 years trying to atone for my inability to articulate the gravity of our ongoing world crisis. But it was not until 20 years ago that I concluded that, though passionate words are important, they are not enough. The best way to keep things wild is do something concrete, something big, something that is equivalent to putting a hand in the face of materialistic industry and saying “No. No more. Not in my world.” Recycling pop cans or donating a few dollars to conservation groups is not enough. We need to find ways to alter humanity’s relationship to the environment, and have the courage to execute those new ideas. I’ve come to believe that each person should shoulder some of the responsibility for not only adhering to best environmental practices but for creating and executing new, practical models for protecting our world. We owe the world our physical labor and our earnest brain power.

I think we fall in love with ecosystems much the way we do with people. And we have to protect those ecosystems we love as fiercely as we protect the people we love. Not long after that first Earth Day, I fell in love with the Great Plains. It is the dominant ecosystem of the North American continent, encompassing a quarter of the land-mass and yet a fraction of the human population. It is a treeless land of grass with extreme climatic conditions—from common sub-zero winter temperatures to triple digits above zero in the summertime. It is a reservoir of species diversity, a major carbon sink, and one of the least protected landscapes in the world. For two hundred years, industrial agriculture has been destroying it by plowing up the grass for which it is famous, draining its aquifers to grow subsidized crops, and poisoning the native species. In that process, industrial agriculture has released tens of thousands of years’ worth of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.

I left my Ohio home shortly after my humiliating performance in the first Earth Day debate and went to work on the Great Plains monitoring birds for South Dakota’s Department of Game Fish and Parks. When I found a little place to live on the edge of the Black Hills, I knew I had found my ecosystem. Later, I took a job reintroducing peregrine falcons to the cliffs that overlooked the Great Plains from Montana to Texas. For 10 years, I drove the length and breadth of the Great Plains and the abuses I saw were ominous: biodiverse grasslands plowed up to create monocultures, stinking, overcrowded cattle feedlots, aquifer-charging playas drained to create more subsidized monocultures, and all the native species pushed to the less fertile edges. The genius of man is astounding but, it has often been put to poor, self-destructive, and frivolous uses. The development of a computer application that locates the closest thin-crust pizza joint is a waste of the genius required to fix what is wrong.

As I drove this post-apocalyptic midsection of North America, I obsessed on what those grasslands were like before the advent of industrial agriculture—miles upon miles of open land to roam, herds of elk, antelope, and bison to the horizons, ground nesting birds erupting from every clump of grass, waterfowl by the billions careening overhead. I tried to understand how it had all fit together and I looked hard for parts of that ecosystem that could still be salvaged. You can’t think about that kind of restoration and conservation long before you come to the role that bison play in sustaining a healthy Great Plains ecosystem and it occurred to me that they might be the place to begin.

Pre-contact North America was home to at least 30 million bison. They were the dependable keystone species of the central grasslands of the continent; their grazing helped to diversify the nutrient cycling in prairie plants and enrich the soil, and their large carcasses provided sustenance for a number of species with whom they shared the Great Plains. By the late nineteenth century, unchecked capitalism had reduced bison numbers to a few million. By the early decades of the twentieth century, there were less than a

thousand—reduced to fugitives, hiding out in the most remote corners of this vast region. They were being replaced by European cattle and the vital grasslands were being plowed to support those cattle and the wars in Europe. The powers that drove this destruction were the same powers that I had failed to face down on that debate stage of that first Earth Day.

Thinking about challenging those forces sent chills down my spine but it was my only road to redemption. Twenty years ago, in an effort to recreate a healthy landscape, my wife, Jill, and I committed to converting our tiny cattle ranch to a bison ranch. We could only afford a dozen buffalo at first, but we wanted to give the native species that still lived on that little piece of land a chance to survive in a world similar to the one in which they had evolved. We always knew that our little, highly mortgaged ranch was insignificant in the scope of the Great Plains. It would take hundreds of thousands of acres to make a perceivable change in the damaged grasslands. That seemed impossible and it took a while to understand that a tool to achieve that change in trajectory was the very tool that had been so destructive.

The best and brightest brains of my generation turned toward the mindless capitalism that drove the deterioration of my chosen landscape—the advent of bigger tractors, genetically modified crops, innovations to pump water and oil faster. They figured out ways to kill the completion for designated crops, dig coal pits deeper, and accelerate life to breakneck speed. Nothing seemed as powerful as manic capitalism.

Of course self-interest drives innovation and efficiency, but did capitalism need to be manic and mindless? I began to wonder if a more sensible capitalism could replace the capitalism that most of us know. What if we included the quality of our great grandchildren’s lives in our definition of self-interest? What if we could harvest some of our bison and sell the meat to finance an expansion of bison numbers? What if we refused to encourage the conversion of grasslands to cropland by rejecting the feedlot model that craves more and more corn? If we allowed our bison to eat only the self-generating plants that they had evolved to eat, and sell the meat to capitalize the model, we would still be well within the conventional capitalist model without bringing about damaging changes to the Great Plains ecosystem.

Twenty years ago, we created Wild Idea Buffalo Company on that premise and our bison herd, with all the accompanying ecological benefits, began to expand exponentially.

Though Wild Idea Buffalo Company is still struggling to be profitable, it is helping the Great Plains to heal faster by encouraging other like-minded producers to expand the range of modern bison. In the bargain, we are supplying one of the planet’s healthiest red meats to people interested in eating unadulterated food. Now we support the raising of thousands of free-roaming grassfed bison in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Our once-little idea now allows bison producers to stop their dependence on industrial agriculture and helps stem the tide of converting healthy, species rich, and carbon absorbent grasslands into monocultures that impoverish the soil. It is a business model that is applicable to other ecosystems around the world. I only wish Colonel Graff was still alive to see it.

 

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37 comments

  • Dan, excellent account of your journey through life.Wish we could clone you.Your love of the land and nature are heartfelt and deeply shared with me. The tv show , Expeditions With Patrick McMillan on PBS about Wild Idea Ranch was very informative and inspirational.We have a Conservation Easement on our farm in NC, trying to do our small part for nature. We absolutely love all of your bison products. Happy Trails and may all your days have sunshine.

    Ken Winter
  • Dan O’Brien, I graduated from my Southwest Missouri Ozarks high school in 1970. I was a Wichita, Kansas transplant and resided in the “Hills” from age 7 to age 18. In essence, the ethereal beauty of Nature rescued me from the din of proverbial chaos within the four walls of the shack where my 6 siblings and I were razed. In 1986, my husband, our son, and, I relocated from Ohio to Kansas, around Wichita. For over 30 years, we’ve lived very near the Flint Hills and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, where a growing herd of bison has been positioned since 2009. What a joy and wonder it is to sidestep the Turnpike and gain a panoramic view of the Prairie! What Europeans did to the First People and their primary food source, the Buffalo, will forever remain inexcusable. Altruism is not a philosophical state of being of which should only exist in terms of dealing with humans. When I was a farm kid in Missouri, students could take courses in Animal Husbandry. A “crop” should always be tended with love and care if one hopes to harvest a healthful Bounty. Personally, I believe in a Creator of all things Great and Small. It has been shown, scientifically, over many millennia, Man’s brain has increased in size. I find that Truism very confusing in the fact that the more advanced in “Mind” Man has become, the rate of destruction has increased, exponentially, as well. Greed, Power, and Lust are negative virtues of which Man will, sadly, never evolve away from,
    en masse. That has been the Curse, the Bane, of Friends of the Earth, Wind, and Sky for centuries, whether one is aligned with a Spiritual Deity beyond this World, or not. To me, the generalized health of our World, is not going to be solved by a Political Machine. Concerned Americans, irrespective of being an Elephant or a Donkey, are going to have to get down to the brass tacks of the conundrum we’ve got ourselves into as a Nation, an integral part of a World Society. We must rip off the false masks of supposed “Caring”, and replace the Old with the New; Reality, as it lives and breathes, before it no longer can. I am an advocate of all things Wild and Free, plus, I believe in humane treatment of all domesticated animals, whether pets or the ones raised for human consumption. Our Country needs to quit spraying toxins on our food crops. Aside from the negative impact it’s having on us, it is killing off bees. Unless we want to be reduced to subsisting on wheat, rice, and corn, we need to remember that bees accomplish more than making honey. They allow for the bulk of bright colored fruits and vegetables on our Harvest Table. Even alfalfa has to be pollinated; parts of which are consumed by Man and cattle. I digress. Thanks again, for your heartfelt essay, Dan. I agree with you, this Nation and World cannot afford to wait any longer for the Establishment to make the “wise” move toward resolving the in our face threats to Flora and fauna in this Great Land. We, each, must endeavor to do our part in terms of Conservation.
    Carolyn S. Desmond

    Carolyn Desmond
  • Hi Dan! Karen (Hirsimaki) Filter here. This writing is so fulfilling and inspirational! The world is a better place with folks like you; who can put feelings into words so well. Your thinking is sensitive and thorough and that’s causing your life to be remarkable, educational and meaningful…..for all the rest of us! Thank you!
    I agree with every word you ever say, but my life hasn’t gone the way of my thinking in totality! I am working, still, to satisfactorily express myself in art; on canvas, in clay, wood, and ink…as I said….you inspire me.

    Karen A Filter
  • Under the new administration​, and the desire to gut programs such as the EPA, you just might get another chance to redo your 1970 save the Earth speech.

    Karen Oetken
  • I really appreciate this, Dan. So much of your storytelling has a parallel in my life; from my entomology and ecology awareness at Montana State to my volunteer work here in Rapid City.

    I love what you are saying and also what you are doing.

    Thank you.

    Eirik Heikes
  • Wonderful blogpost. Thank you for sharing your journey in trying to make a difference! From a younger lover-of-the-earth, I thank you for your continued contribution.

    Lia
  • Spectacular writing Dan!! We can all be grateful for the commitment you have made to raise Buffalo in the grasslands and offer the meat. Ke

    Lan
  • Like most indigenous people, I will take time to think & reflect upon the words that you have written. We generally do not just speak (or write) without doing so. But I will tell you that you did not fail when you spoke before the other students in front of this Colonel Graff. It took much courage to do this. You spoke about Mother Earth, and the way of the world. He spoke about the way of the white man, what he knows about how to destroy Mother Earth. Your defense of the land did not come with big fancy words. It came from your heart. No man can speak up better for her than that. No white man who is already intent on the destruction of the ecology will listen to these words. Witness what is going on with the pipline so close to where you are living. They do not hear the pleas of the people who’s water supply they will ruin, who’s holy grace sites they will disgrace. They only hear the sounds of the coins in their pockets, and see the zeros adding up in those bank books they carry around with them. But when there is no place left to go, nothing else left to buy, who will they listen to then? Who will they turn to for advice, then all of the indigenous people are wiped from this planet, & all of the buffalo are finally gone? To whom will they turn to then, except other white men who still have heart, and are not afraid to say so?

    Dr JE Bateau_nowak
  • Really awesome blog, thank you! Keep spreading the word, keep up the good work!

    Russell Brooks
  • Dan,
    Once again, you have hit the nail on the head. You may have stumbled in your 20’s to find the right words, but you certainly have no trouble finding them now. Godspeed, friend. Best to Jill and the family, from Bill & Kathy in the north Georgia mountains.
    Kathy

    Kathy Day
  • Dan, “Defeats” can either “kill” us or it can cause us to reach deeper into our souls for the strength for conviction, determination … and thus the power to not only overcome, but to go on to even greater “victories” in life. But sometimes the infrastructure of the system we are a part of is actually “too much”. It is too entrenched for an individual to overcome. Thus “we” the “greater we” of the Big Lebowski have to have understanding for those who can not escape the fate of that over dominating institution you talk of in the ‘60’.
    It can be so demoralizing for those that become part of an “institution” …. those entering in ….have such emotional ties of mission of common goals as stated of that institution … to then be so shattered when, over time, they find out that institution, the beliefs they have committed to, twists life completely around.
    Such is an institution like the National Park Service. In my 30 years in Yellowstone I saw just about all my fellow rangers retire either as bitter or apathetic. Some very good people, those with deep environment conviction, slowly over the years were defeated …or should I say, “lost their way”. Yes, as time went on after retirement the memories, the “glory days” had to come front center for most of them. It had to … other wise how does that person justify a life now about over.

    They were … and still are very good people. And I can forgive them all, whomever they are, for falling into the trap they didn’t have the opportunity to change or get out of. Some of us were “lucky”. The stars aligned. That is all. We could fight the abuses, We could win govt. battles (or should I say win against the politics of govt.) where the likes of Dick Cheney pulled out all his dirty tricks to protect his exploitive and corrupt outfitter buddies. Yes I can win a 2 year nationally media followed “case”. I can stay in my favorite part of park doing the same job I always did. No whistle blower winner gets to do that. They all are transferred out. not me.
    But what is “victory”? He hurt a lot of my peers in Yellowstone when he lost. Those were peers I spent decades around. Some I personally fished, hiked, patrolled lots of miles on a horse. But in the end they were forced to stand for the “govt.” or face the career consequences. When Cheney blamed them for my I categorize as a “right for good” win he forced GS grade loss, transfers to other agencies, early retirement …you name it. Cheney is a very poor loser.

    Yes, I helped change some culture, some rights for free speech in govt. language … as rights now spelled out to every govt. employee in their hiring packets. State laws were expanded regarding salt baiting of big game, the grizzlies were given a few more years relief in endangered Species protection, but I feel for my peers, my associates, my friends who could not escape the effects of govt. abuse … of their very core of a person. I don’t know the answer. I was “lucky”.

    For the likes of Colonel Graff and Cheney … may they rest in peace. For those not “lucky”, my peers with no way out, they, I need to tell them, as Private Ryan asked in Saving Private Ryan “Yes, you are a good man”. For the peers you felt you let down on that first Earth Day I am sure they, even then, knew there stood a “very good man”. And after this, all the years of conviction driving one forward, the decades that help define environmental good … that is the icing on the cake. A tip of the shot glass to you over the shoulder, my man.

    bob jackson
  • Dan,
    You have nothing to “atone” for. If we all could do as much as you have to save our planet, it would be in much better condition.
    I am so grateful for your efforts, including your wonderful writing, and that I was so fortunate to discover you. You will always have my total support.

    michael
  • Dan,
    A friend posted your article. Enjoyed the read and enthusiastically commend you for your ongoing efforts and for speaking out. Don’t be too hard on yourself for not changing the world since 1970. I was co-coordinator of our first Earth-Day activities up at Univ. of Akron (big Ohio school) in 1970. We did some recycling and picketed at an industry that was spewing pollution into a nearby stream. Even then it didn’t seem like much, but it was a start. The next year I had an Earth walk to organize money for Nader’s public interest group he was starting in Ohio—statewide we made enough to at least get it launched. I think for me the important thing was that it was a personal epiphany in terms of my professional goals. I ended up working at Ohio EPA and then geology jobs here and there including USGS and WA Geologic Survey, mostly investigating the evidence for past volcanic eruptions, landslides, and earthquakes. And I think the most rewarding part has been teaching full-time in a community college for the past 12 years here in WA State. It’s been a chance to talk about the environment with new generations. We have lots of challenges ahead on so many levels, some of the most important are local!

    Patrick Pringle
  • As a person who straddles the capitalism/preservation chasm, I found your essay heartfelt, provocative and instructive. Clearly our 6 billion and growing world-wide population— by definition creates long term challenges to the eco-system that has been managed on a short term orientation to support our growing population and desired standard of living.

    Your note describes how a single person (who along with family support) can translate their sensibilities and passion into entrepreneurial action that has purpose and makes a difference. I am struck at how you beliefs were not trapped in a stereotypical embodiment. Rather, you chose to live a life style and to demonstrate through deeds—not just words— that uses entrepreneurship and capitalist principles in a sustainable manner. It is moving.

    I too am a loyal purchaser of your products because of their quality and perceived healthfulness. I now have another reason… support an interesting experiment that seeks to teach and demonstrate a different and better way. Well done and thanks for taking the time to articulate your views. More important thanks for what you do.

    Cheers

    Charlie

    Charlie Frenette
  • Beautifully said, Dan. For all that you and Jill have done, and continue to do THANK YOU! Through your actions, you are educating, promoting healthier living, and helping to heal the planet. You point the way to the right path that we need to follow. I don’t think there is any more valuable contribution than that.

    Pat O'

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