How Buffalo Taught Me to be a Responsible Capitalist

Dan overlooking a prairie bluff

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, they were 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.


  • Posted on by Ken Winter

    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.

  • Posted on by Carolyn Desmond

    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

  • Posted on by Karen A Filter

    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.

  • Posted on by Karen Oetken

    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.

  • Posted on by Eirik Heikes

    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.

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