Predator-Friendly Prairie Landlords
People say they love nature, but as Dan often points out, “People like nature when it doesn’t smell, poop, or bite.” More consumers are voting for nature with their purchases and look to companies like Wild Idea Buffalo Co. who offer products that are sustainably produced. Although meat is the by-product of our healthy buffalo herds, our real product is actually prairie conservation that embraces and helps sustain all creatures great and small, including those that smell, poop, and bite.
Our love of nature includes a native habitat that is (or could be) home for prey and predators alike - including the great predators that have been extirpated or that have taken refuge in the mountains away from the pressing force of the greatest predator of all, humans.
Prior to human pressures, grizzly bears roamed the prairies too. Although 90 percent of their diet is vegetation, they are considered omnivores. A theory for why bison usually avoid riparian zones (wooded creek bottoms) is that grizzly bears love to hang out there. Although bears have the ability to kill a healthy bison, they typically prey on the weak or young. Bison herds are great defenders of their members. But at one time, they were important regulators of other populations of ungulate species. Our sourcing partners in Montana work harmoniously with all of the larger predators, as they know how important they are to the overall ecosystem. We would welcome grizzlies too, if they would ever return to the Cheyenne River.
By 1930, wolves had been deliberately exterminated from the western United States due to the killing of the domesticated livestock that replaced the bison. Although the bison numbers had already hit their all-time low, the elimination of the wolves allowed the elk and deer populations to explode, causing overgrazing in areas such as Yellowstone National Park. Wolves are critical to an ecosystem, especially in keeping large ungulates' populations in check. Because wolves hunt in packs they are more of a threat to bison than bears, but they too prefer smaller ungulates, such as elk or deer who offer a better chance for a risk-free meal. Wolves are occasionally spotted in western South Dakota but there are no known packs in the state. We wish there were.
Deer hunters on our ranches report Mountain Lions regularly, yet with all our accumulated outdoor hours, we have only seen tracks. Our Cheyenne River banks would be a great habitat for them, but they are commonly found in the adjacent Black Hills, where there is enough of them that the State Game Fish and Parks issue licenses to keep their numbers in check. We are hopeful for their return in force.
On our ranch, Coyotes are in abundance. This is perhaps due to the lack of the larger predators mentioned above. Their numbers are unsustainably high, which can often encourage disease. Although there are stories of bison kills, they prefer the leftovers of animals taken by a larger predator, or smaller prey, such as prairie dogs, which they help keep in balance.
Red Fox and Swift Fox also call the prairie their home and it is a treat if you have the opportunity to see them. Loss of prairie habitat to cropland and federal eradication of Prairie Dogs through a poisoning program has put a lot of stress on these animals. But they survive and also help with controlling small animal populations.
If you are ever lucky enough, you might see a Bobcat. They are very elusive, and their beautiful multi-colored coat helps to keep them out of sight. They are terrific killers of their prey, which is mostly rabbits and other small animals or birds. They have been known to take down small deer, as well as domestic lambs and chickens but are too small to hurt our bison, though Dan has seem them standing close to the herd, looking on with longing.
Snakes, and particularly the prairie Rattle Snake are great controllers of rodents, prairie dogs, and rabbits, but also consume ground nesting birds and other small animals. The rattle snakes have a distinctive rattle that alerts you to their presence, and warns you not to approach. But sadly, and too often, the rattle gives the snakes location away and the snake is met with a shovel. Scientists are learning that this selection is muting the rattle and so, making the snakes more dangerous.
Thousands of Hawks, Owls, and Eagles move through the ranch during spring and fall migrations and eleven species nest in the native grass and woody draws. They are mostly rodent eaters but some eat birds, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, and snakes. Golden and Bald Eagles catch and eat everything up to the size of small deer and antelope, and are always on the lookout for carrion scattered across the prairie.
And there are also the forgotten, low profile predators on our ranch: raccoons, skunks, weasels, badgers, shrews, and the occasional black footed ferret. These are mostly night marauders and often go undetected. But they are out there, doing their part to keep things in balance.
Wild Idea Buffalo Co. manages their land for conservation and species diversity. We are not selective in what those species are. All of the above creatures evolved together and many have been here for many tens of thousands of years. Although we are the new residents and temporary "landlords", it is a question of respect and we at Wild Idea give that respect gladly.
The amazing photographs in this story were taken by nature and conservation photographer, Michael Forsberg. For more of Michael's work go here.
Or, to see Michael in action, check out this short, powerful 2-minute video here.
To learn more on the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, go here.
I hear cow/goat/sheep ranchers where I live talk about killing predators (mostly mountain lions) to keep their herds safe. Do you find this type of management not necessary with Buffalo because few predictors want to mess with them ? What about during calfing season ? Do ranchers ever mix Buffalo with smaller ungulates for protection ? In Yellowstone I noticed mama/baby pronghorns hanging out near the Buffalo herds, ostensibly for protection . Always fun to learn more about how our food is grown , thanks !
Thank you, I will take as many articles illuminating “where food comes from” as I can get! Interesting that you mention that you have partners in Montana…I’m assuming that probably means breeding stock? I had always just assumed that most of your herds came from South Dakota, Custer State Park, etc.
An important but overlooked benefit from predators these days is that they help to keep Chronic Wasting Disease positivity lower in wild cervids. Canids are thought to be invulnerable to the disease, as well as bison (based on genome analysis) and probably pronghorn antelope. (The jury is still out on humans!) But every year, the disease spreads to new wild deer and elk herds throughout the entire West and Midwest. Large open functional ecosystems like yours will hopefully help in some small way to counter that trend.
I believe your worst predator threat will be human poachers. After all , humans are about the only predator that kills for sport and ego! Poachers are the worst threat to large animals in the world.
I love these articles. Funny how people will immediately concede the need for balance in their own lives but not want it on a world scale.I can’t get my head around the mindset that people are smarter than nature. In New England they brought in Fisher Cats to take out the porcupine (don’t get me started). Turns out Fishers love to eat pine martens. Pine Martens would burrow under the snow to eat rodents all winter. Without them the rodent population is soaring. Meanwhile we have plenty of Fisher Cats which are not afraid of anything—especially children.
Beautiful and powerful. Thank you – for the photos, images and the essay. They speak to the heart and imagination – so needed!