River Ranch Diary, cont'd

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A Preface

 

Before I launch into the subject of this little local-color essay, I want all my Wild Idea Buffalo friends, both old and new, domestic and international, to hear this loud Hello. Though I have been away, I have not forgotten.

 

First, for those who may not know, I give you a short history of the friendship between me and Dan O’Brien.

 

Through the agency of a mutual friend, Dan and I met in the spring of 1971. For reasons but barely realized at the time, we stepped into what has become a lifelong friendship. Both of us grew up with a love of outdoorsmanship—mine with an emphasis on camping, hiking, and hunting small game, his with an emphasis on bird hunting with dog, gun, and raptor—and both of us influenced by literature (I as an English professor, he as a writer). We both read constantly, albeit with somewhat different perspectives. I have learned falconry from Dan. He may have caught a glimpse of some literature from me. Fifty-plus years is a long time. It’s a beginning.

 

Gervase Hittle

 

I first set foot on this ranch in August of 2001, shortly after Dan and his then-business partner had purchased the property. We rode across part of the ranch on a couple of borrowed horses, and we noticed two things: first, a dearth of wildlife—no deer, no antelope, not many bird species; only some turkeys, prairie dogs, a few rabbits. At night the coyotes sang. On one of the tablelands above the ranch headquarters, we saw a small covey of sharp-tailed grouse. That brought a sigh of relief to Dan, the consummate falconer witnessing the consummate challenge flying away.

 

Second, we recognized the potential for this property to hold more wildlife species than we saw.

 

A few months later, while I was in Oklahoma doing some carpentry work for my sisters, my phone rang. When I answered, Dan asked me if I was busy.

 

Dan: I need some help. Can you come up?

 

Me: When?

 

Dan: As soon as possible.

 

Me: For how long?

 

Dan: Long as you want.

 

Me: I’m obligated through New Year’s Eve.

 

Dan: That works for me.

 

Me: See you next year.

 

That was the beginning of the next phase of our friendship.

 

If we look at the buffalo (and we must do so) from the perspective that it was and IS a keystone species for the health and well-being of prairie grasslands, we must also recognize that major alterations to those prairie grasslands—removal of the buffalo, fee simple land ownership, fencing and large-scale, invasive agricultural practices—damage the naturally evolved ecosystems of those prairies. The first act required to improve the health and quality of the enclosed pastures on Dan’s new ranch was fencing the deeded property for the reintroduction of land to the American Bison, from which it had been deprived for more than a century. The bison, hereafter referred to as buffalo, at that moment were waiting in the wings on two nearby ranches: the Broken Heart, north of Sturgis, and the Lame Johnny Creek Ranch, south of Fairburn. As we completed each major section of fencing, we moved buffalo from these ranches to their new locations on the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch. That was the start. What remained to be done was everything.

 

What I am trying to get at here is not the work that ranching requires. That is not the story, nor is it the foundation of Wild Idea Buffalo Company.

 

The story is one of a writer, born with a love of falconry, wildlife of all kinds (especially birds), prairie grasslands, and a vague sense of building and inhabiting something—call it sustainable—that could serve as a beacon in a discernibly damaged world, as he steps onto a cattle ranch bordering the Cheyenne River in west-central South Dakota. He faces the daunting task of converting this property to a habitat suitable to an acreage, as free range as possible, for a grazing herd of buffalo. The management model will be based on the intrinsic social structure of the herd itself rather than on a traditional cattle model. The cows will have their calves without human intervention. The calves will not be weaned and sold. The family groups will remain intact for almost three years, at which time a portion of them will become the meat on your table. The herd will graze a variety of pastures on a planned rotation so as not to overgraze, minimizing the opportunity for invasive species to take hold.

 

Four years ago, after an eight-year hiatus, I returned to the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch, during which time I have worked hard to catch up with the changes that have taken place. On this ranch, there exist no fewer than 130 species of vegetation. Where there was once a field cultivated for annual small grain, for instance, there exists a pasture reseeded to native perennial grasses. As much as we possibly can, we let the natural world work its magic for us rather than trying to force it into submission. This practice encourages the wildlife inhabitants of the prairie to reintegrate with their native habitat. An example can be easily seen with antelope, which feed exclusively on forbs (flowering non-grass plants).

 

antelope herd 

 

There are no forbs in a monoculture grain field; therefore, no antelope will be there. Convert that field to native perennial vegetation with forbs, and antelope will return. These practices reduce the human footprint on the land. They require an investment in the land and its natural components, which is why visitors to this ranch see basic but minimal equipment that is necessary for maintaining the ranch infrastructure: fences, water wells, and driveways. It also assures that the visitor will see a number of wildlife species often not seen elsewhere.

 

The coyotes still sing here at night. And, depending on the season, a visitor or a casual passerby might just have the occasion to see a man and a dog out in a field. The man will likely be looking into the sky trying to locate a falcon. With a little luck the dog will be on point, and if you should happen to stop and watch, you might just see a top avian predator make an attempt on a most difficult prey, the sharp-tailed grouse. In the background will likely be the calmly grazing Wild Idea Buffalo herd.

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