One of the things I can still do around the ranch is take people on tours. In the summer that amounts to driving around the ranch for a few hours in an ATV a couple times a week, showing folks what we have been using our buffalo’s grazing regimen to try to regenerate the habitat to a semblance of what it was before European acquisitive agriculture took over. We talk about the early naivete that led me to believe that the task of regeneration could be completed in the lifetime of one man, how I believed, and still believe, that progress toward that goal can be measured in the number of birds that choose our ranch for their home.
When the tours begin, I take the visitors to a high spot overlooking the Cheyenne River and ask them to rotate 360 degrees. Then I tell them that this is a land of birds and I watch for their reaction. Usually, eyes roll and people smile. Nine times out of ten there is at least one visitor who breaks out in a guffaw. “There aren’t any trees,” they say. “Where can they perch?” I wait, cat-like, until someone asks, “Where do they nest?” Then I pounce. I look down at our feet and begin naming the grasses and forbs that we are standing on. “To understand,” I say, “you’re going to have to believe in evolution.” I let that statement hang out there in the dry prairie breeze and begin to name the birds that I know nest in the regenerated vegetation of our ranch. “Meadowlarks, bobolinks, six kinds of sparrows, four kinds of blackbirds, lark buntings, sharp-tailed grouse, northern harriers, short-eared owls, nine wading birds, mourning doves, gold finches, dickcissels, mallards, gadwalls, wigeons, two kinds of teal, upland sandpipers, long-billed curlews, Canada geese, trumpeter swans, ferruginous hawks, night hawks, and probably many more. In the crevices, where there is tumbleweed residue and a little brush, there are a few warblers and under it all, living a subterranean life with the prairie dogs, there are hundreds of burrowing owls.
Here is where evolution comes in: for eons, all the birds I named evolved under the grazing of buffalo, not the grazing of cattle, sheep, or the heavy hand of row-crop agriculture. Evolution is a delicate, tireless function. For untold centuries, our grasses thrived under the particular tread of buffalo hooves and the unique grazing pressure that those dominate grazers exert on the entire Great Plains. Our birds have evolved to take advantage of that process and are dependent on the vegetation that is enhanced by the grazing of our buffalo. I have not found the nests of all the bird species that I named above. But most of the ones I have found were built tight to the ground and constructed of several different dried native grasses and the warm undercoat of buffalo wool!
Over most of the grasslands, bird species suffered during the great buffalo extermination. The Audubon Society tells us that ground-nesting birds across the Great Plains are still in precipitous decline and has honored us by awarding us their bird-friendly land certification through their Conservation Ranching Initiative. We have worked hard for that certification but we know that a big part of the credit goes to the free roaming buffalo that share the pastures with ground-nesting birds and with us.