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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  • Dan, you need not apologize to anyone or any generation. We do what we can with what we know. I too was active during the first Earth Day in 1970 and carry the curse and the blessing of the Boomer title. I was a beginning 5th grade teacher. I took my 35 students and we spent the day circling the campus and collected 47 black plastic bags full of trash. We realized how much was being wasted and began a food collection that became compost for a new garden. We raised chickens and shared fresh eggs. We challenged packaging, sugar/salt contents and nutrition in school lunches. The students wrote letters, made posters and created and presented a play. I can only hope it changed a few lives and spread environmental concern. But it wasn’t enough, I could have done more.
    The prairie calls to so many of us, after going to college in Nebraska I can make sense of the feelings that arise when standing on a grassy hill and glazing over acres of open land. There, off in the distance where the land meets the sky roam dozens of magnificent animals, dark brown with red, woolly little ones running circles as their mamas feed. Thats what you have given all of us who read your stories, eat the meat you raise and want to stand next to you with the sun overhead and count those dark spots on the horizon. No, never apologize – right is right and will endure. It is not us two legged ones that will live on, we may fail but the earth will outlast us all.

    Two Dog
  • Thank you for what you’ve done and what you’re doing. Wild Idea Buffalo shows how one person can make a difference. Your determination, patience and constancy are changing lots of lives and helping the Earth. Bravo. Thank you.

    Cheves Leland
  • Dan,

    I cannot thank you enough for your passionate vision and fearless defense of the Great Plains Eco system. Using bison as a vehicle to heal both the planet, our native species and the human soul is brilliant, inspired, and pragmatic.
    About two years ago, I bought some northwest TX acreage that had been a wheat farm. Working with TX Parks and Wildlife, I had it replanted in native grasses and forbs and am now joyfully watching this piece of the rolling plains slowly heal itself. Time will return this parcel back to a thriving ecosystem and I can’t wait to see it!
    It is an honor to support the bison ranches of Wild Idea Buffalo. Keep up the good work and keep making a difference to change our world!

  • Aloha Dan,

    I’d say you just won that debate after all. As a fellow lake Erie transplant to elsewhere, similar in age, interests, prior vocation, a love for all wildlife including buffalo, and at least some shared beliefs: Just plain thanks! Cheers and aloha!

  • Even if Colonel Graff was still alive, he probably wouldn’t see the importance of what you’ve achieved. I despair at the fate of our planet if we can’t reconnect kids to nature and get them back outside. If nobody cares about these last great spaces and the wildlife and ecologies they support, all of it will vanish and ultimately, so will we.

    Penny Gray
  • Beautiful! Thank you – and thank you for your continuing work.

    Reverend Thomas Carr
  • The cruelest mission ever undertaken by any people, was the idea to put a bounty on our buffalo. Kill the food source and you defeat the
    Indian . I am so ashamed of my people for inflicting such pain on both man and beast .

  • Dan,
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. As a probable contemporary of yours, I too was far more concerned with the rights of blacks and women, the Vietnam conflict and the acceptability of recreational marijuana. Perhaps it’s time to forgive yourself. You were young, and your “failure” at that debate has been the force which pushed you to create Wild Idea Buffalo Co. For that enterprise I am truly grateful: thank you so very much for making fantastic meats available. What would we customers do without you?!

    Ardath Albizo
  • Wonderful essay, Dan. Earth Day has special meaning this year as the administration continues to put profit ahead of environmental protection.

    Your beach in Lake Erie is still in trouble. Pesticides are not the problem these days, but rather phosphorous that runs into the lake from both family farms and large CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The phosphorous causes toxic algae blooms in the summer that make the water unsafe for drinking, swimming and fishing. We’ve had a lot of rain this spring and 2017 looks like it’s building up to be a banner year for toxic algae.

    I’m doing what I can to raise awareness here in Ohio, but our state and federal government is reluctant to do what is needed. With the EPA in the hands of industry, most of our local water quality monitoring programs are in danger of going away for lack of funding.

    These are bleak times, but it’s good to know that there are people like you out there doing what they can to save their small part of the world. Thank you.

    Chuck Beatty
  • Un grand salut d’admiration et d’amitié pour Dan 0’Brien, et je souhaite que vous soyez un model suivi en France aussi.

    Merci pour votre action et pour vos livres.

    Laurence Aumeunier
  • I sometimes wonder about the driving force behind the extermination of buffalo on the Plains. Native Americans out West depended on these animals, and, their culture would die with these animals. So, here was a convenient effective way to eliminate those annoying people who pitched their tepees on Our Land.

    john Ziskowski
  • Happy Earth Day Dan! Thank you for what you are doing. We buy your product because of your mission to restore the plains. Oh and it happens to be the highest quality meat we can get. We have learned to eat less red meat and pretty much only from you. Thanks and keep up the great work!

    Noel Smyth
  • I do hope that the pleasure of reading again in this shorter form your dream, your endeavor, your belief , your hope, will be followed by the pleasure of meeting you when I come with my group of retired French people in June. Votre projet est passionnant.

    Jane Baile
  • Wonderful article! Thank you for caring and working so hard to heal a vital portion of our world.

  • You, Dan, have spent the last 45 years trying to atone for your inability to articulate the gravity of our ongoing world crisis. Now, you have atoned and your voice is loud and clear. Thank you, once again,



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