Ranching for Wildlife
In keeping with the theme of “ranching for wildlife,” I will focus not so much on the flora and fauna of the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch, but on the mechanics of what we do or have done and will do to enhance the wildlife presence and use of this particular real estate.
In general, several things have to be available on a year-round basis: appropriate food, clean water, and suitable habitat. The single most important activity of the natural world, whatever the immediate environment may be, is its striving to be in balance, working together, rather than in a competitive spirit. The Prairie Falcon catching a Meadowlark is no more important than a Dung Beetle rolling a ball for its next generation. If, in Nature, something gets out of equilibrium, the ecological forces will work to bring extreme demographics back into balance. Human influence will often create imbalance because we, sometimes arrogantly, tend to think that we must compete for our places in the world.
To ranch with the American Buffalo on its own terms, as much as possible, requires that we think in natural rather than competitive terms. For instance, a prey species and a predator live in an equilibrium, or they do not survive. The difficulty with this process comes with the modern regulations controlling ranch real estate. Thus, with this setting of the stage, let’s turn to the “ranching for wildlife,” business at hand.
Fencing is mandatory because ownership of land is inherently competitive. To accommodate deer and antelope, for example, we build our fences with five strands of barbed wire. The top strand is about five feet from the ground, and the bottom strand is sixteen to eighteen inches above the ground. The placement, number, and type of post depends on the direction of the fence (east/west, north/south) in accordance with soil type and the direction of prevailing winds, that can pile tumbleweed and/or snow against the fence to its detriment. The rationale for this construction is simple. The buffalo almost never damage or challenge a fence. Perhaps during the rut, fighting bulls may crash into and through a fence. Typically, White-tailed Deer easily jump a five-foot fence, while both Antelope and Mule Deer prefer to go under, thus the sixteen to eighteen inches of clearance.
Additionally we try to enhance natural features like playas (natural depressions that hold water). Without fences buffalo would simply migrate to a water source. Fencing requires that water be provided. In three cases we have constructed water lines: two to playas and one to a stock dam. The benefits are immense to wildlife as well as to buffalo. Sometimes I try to imagine what visitors who happen to see an open hydrant running water into the prairie might think.
Reseeding former monoculture farm ground to native grasses provides food and habitat for numerous species of birds, animals, and insects—all working together to create a healthy pasture. The presence or absence of wildlife in pastures of all kinds is indicative of that area’s health. A healthy pasture, whether rolling prairie, wooded draws with springs, alpine meadows, or river breaks provide habitat, food, and security. The wildlife inhabitants of these locales vary, but the benefit to us of that collection of wildlife provides a rule-of-thumb barometer of the health of that area.
If, for example, you see Redwing Blackbirds building nests in the cattails along the edges of playa, or a Killdeer leading you away from a nest of her young, or a faun Antelope curled tightly next to a clump of Sage or Western Wheatgrass, you can pretty well guess that something is going well. Wildlife do not ordinarily reproduce in unhealthy locations. So, when I’m traveling the ranch, I try to look at the grazed areas to figure out who is eating what, the condition of the fences, the roosting forms of Grouse and Rabbits, the presence of raptors and their prey, the dens of Badgers and Coyotes, the tracks of animals and birds in the snow, dust, or mud, and of whatever else tells me about the activity and presence of wildlife. Then I know that the work and effort and expense is, has been, and will be worthwhile. For that I thank the ranch’s philosophy and the buffalo.