The Dream Continues

When the Great Plains were young there were no humans to manage them. No humans to plow the soil, string barbed wire along the river banks, choose the crops to plant on the flats, or decide on the number of animals to graze the grass. It was like one enormous ranch, managed on the single principal of natural selection. In those days the Great Plains changed so slowly that, for all practical purposes, they were in stasisperpetually beautiful and wild.

About 20,000 years ago, when humans crossed the Bering land bridge that briefly joined North America with Asia, they found a wonderland of plenty and immediately began to alter it. Early hunters killed off many of the animals that had evolved to thrive on the central grasslands of North America. Those animals had learned to move across the Great Plains in huge numbers and thrive on the specialized vegetation that evolved alongside them. But many species had not evolved a fear of humans and, if they couldn’t evolve fast enough, they perished.

Then the humans began to divide the Great Plains up into hunting grounds and fought to the death over the boundaries they created according to mountain ranges, rivers, or imaginary limits. Within those divisions, animals began to be culled, prairies were burned to herd the animals into more convenient hunting areas, and berries and roots were harvested for the first time. In a way, those old hunting grounds were the first Great Plains ranches. They were huge but suddenly the hand of man had begun to fiddle with the management of the Great Plains. The constriction of the land would continue until the present day.

By the middle 1800s the Native claims to the land were being extinguished one by one and the era of the cattleman was at hand. Based on the European notion of a "commons" for grazing animals, the old hunting/gathering “ranches” of the Natives were replaced by free-range sheep and cattle ranches, often owned by European syndicates. Many of these new, open-range ranches were carved from individual Native hunting grounds. Still, many of the new ranches were hundreds of thousands of acres. The advent of over-grazing put new management stresses on these nascent eco-islands.
Homesteading and barbed wire furthered divided the Great Plains’ pie, destroying the migration paths of animals, limiting the health of grasses that need space, and threatening everything that had depended on the vastness of the Great Plains for protection. By the twentieth century the Great Plains were being managed by tens of thousands of human land managers, each with different ideas about their land and few with any idea of the potential damage of dividing a huge ecosystem into tiny fragments.

Cheyenne River

In 2000, when we bought our Cheyenne River Ranch it was one of those fragmentsa little over nine-hundred acres in an ocean of heterogeneous, dysfunctional fragments. A hundred years before it had been part of huge Texas based ranch of hundreds of thousands of acres. In more recent years it belonged to the Midwestern Cattle Company out of Chicago. From the Midwest Cattle Company our little section of the ranch was transformed into what was known locally as the JB ranch. By the time we bought our little section, the JB had been breaking up for years. With each sale it got smaller until we bought that little nine hundred acres and, in a grandiose gesture, named it the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch. We knew that we were moving onto a degraded version of what the Great Plains had beenthat the subdividing of the prairie was a death sentence and that subdividing was so profitable in our economic system that there was little chance that it would cease. It seemed that ranches would continue to shrink, and, like Humpty Dumpty, no one would ever be able to put them back together again.

By now the kids were passionate about the conservation work we were doing and about Wild Idea Buffalo Co. There would be grandchildren in the future too. What would be our legacy to them?

Dan & Jill O'Brien Family(O'Brien Family: Dan, Jilian, Barrett, Colton, Lincoln, Lucas and Jill)

When a US Forest Service lease became available to us, our family decided to try to reverse what had been the norm for many generations. We acquired the lease and switched the whole ranch to the exclusive job of raising buffaloas it had been before the great human fiddling had begun. It might have been a silly thing to aspire to and the job would never end, but it was something that we had to try. We took no profit out of the ranch, no new cars, or fancy vacations, and all family members worked outside jobs too. Then, two years after we moved onto the original Cheyenne River Ranch, our bachelor neighbor died and we were able to borrow the money to buy his little ranch. We put the whole place into a conservation easement which we sold for the down payment on the next adjoining land that came up for sale. By 2015 we had 3,200 acres of the old JB ranch back under one owner and a grazing permit on 24,000 acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Then a strange thing happened.

A hunting buddy and his wife let me know that his family had noticed what my family was doing. We were on a fishing trip and, in passing; he told me that he’d be interested in buying a ranch and leasing it back for us to manage as part of the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch. I thanked him for his offer but knew that people often talked about such things but seldom followed through. I was pretty sure the proposal would never come to fruition. It was also unlikely that another ranch right beside the CRBR would come up for sale and if it did, I’d probably never have the nerve to call and ask the guy to follow through. The week before this past Christmas, I got a call from the man who owned the ranch right beside usthe remainder of the old JB ranch. He was a corn farmer from Nebraska and he had over extended himself at the bank.

After the call, I sat in my chair contemplating the call. The acquisition would add another 6,400 acres to the CRR, but it was far beyond our resources. I was still staring at the telephone and I thought about simply calling my friend. But I couldn’t do it without stewing for five days. When I finally found the courage, I told him that a large ranch had come up for sale. It would fit perfectly into the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch and it would put the JB back together. He had no idea what the JB was, but he simply said, “Let’s buy it.”

The details took about four months. There were all kinds of lawyers with long lease agreements. There were some fences that had to be altered to accommodate buffalo. When we moved four hundred and fifty head of buffalo into their brand new pasture they leaped about with delight, which Jill captured on video.

Dan & Jill O'Brien FamilyThe herd was in full frolic mode, apparently as happy as we are to begin reversing the tragedy of downsizing the scope of America’s Great Plains. The dream continues... we can only hope that it’s not too heavy to carry forward.
Dan & Jill O'Brien Family
Goofing off during family photo session. Most typical - but not so fun for the photographer! ;) 

Photo credit: Jill O'Brien

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  • Thanks for giving me hope

    Pamela Fairbanks
  • Since boyhood I lamented the fact that I’d never get to see the Great Plains herds roaming the west the way Lewis and Clark did . But your beautiful family with their vision are making it happen . God Bless , your story made my day.

    Mark Brault
  • Our family loves what you are doing. It is especially heart warming to hear that the Buffalo are frolicking, native grasses are returning and that many people believe in your vision!

    Jeri Ben-Horin
  • Dan & Jill – What an accomplishment….a dream that keeps growing! I still remember the Broken Heart days, Curly Bill and filming on the Turner – Flying D when you were worried you wouldn’t make Wild Idea work. Congratulations on making the vision a success, taking a lot of us with you and educating us along the way. Yes, you have the best buffalo we’ve ever eaten. The taste is fabulous and the care given the bison is the best. Thank you! You don’t look as worried as you did about 20 years ago….thank goodness. Keep up raising and restoring….Hugs from WY

    Kathleen Treanor
  • Redemption. A beautiful story and perfect day to share. Thank you Jill. Thank you Dan.

    Scott Williams
  • This story makes me happy beyond reason.

    Chuck Beatty
  • I laughed as I cried reading your offering and watching the video. When the shame of the Plains’ mismanagement and pogroms the native peoples who harbored such a reverence for it suffered becomes a mainstream chronology in our historical narrative, we as a nation will look with profound gratitude upon your family’s achievements. The righting of the food sources within the industrial complex will not end. The youth of this country are some of the most informed and soul-seeking of any generations preceding them, including we children of the 60’s. Thank you Dan, Jill, and family for “dancing with the wolves.”

    Vernon Cross
  • Good grief Dan, look what you have started with a falcon, dog and 13 buffalos. Then you added Jill and Jillian and the Dream. Your story is full of struggles, pleasure and a belief that one person matters.
    Thanks to all people of Wild Idea Buffalo who have taught so many of us, LIFE IS WHAT YOU CHOOSE TO MAKE IT.

    Barbara J Bartak
  • Amitiés de France pour toute la famille O’Brien, et bravo pour this good way of life !
    I would like to be closer to buy your products. but I really like your publications and the photos that bring serenity.
    Laurence, faithful French reader of Dan’s books.

    AUMEUNIER Laurence
  • Just seeing the herd running, hearing their snorts and the drumming of their hooves on the new-to-them pasture made my day! I would have loved to be there.

    Ty Krauss
  • I am so glad that you put this ranch together, and I wish you all great success for all time.
    I have eaten your buffalo for a very long time now, and it helps my health very much.
    I love you all very dearly, and I put all of you in the arms of God.
    Love, Don

    Don Meyer
  • Do you have some way to accept contributions? Have you considered establishing a parallel foundation for grasslands conservation or a similar structure? I expect you have a desire to keep control so you can stay focussed on your original mission of strengthening the prairie ecosystem, but there might be others like Dan’s hunting buddy who would like to help, even if they don’t have the same resources.

    Steve Thompson
  • What a great story, the details of each acquisition are very interesting,
    it “does my heart good” to know how much you care and how hard you
    work to make your dream come true. Not just for you but for all of us
    who benefit from your dream.

  • Wow, just wow.
    And, Thank you.
    There is of course, so very much, still, that makes one proud to be American, and so much, still, every day, that grinds us down to where we can’t seem to feel that . . .
    Stories like yours help bring it all back.
    Like I said: Thanks!

    Cass Wright
  • In 2002 the original 900 acres of the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch came up for sale, that would eventually link to a 34,000 acre lease on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. At that time the Broken Heart Ranch was 1,200 acres. The potential for growing our bison herd with large landscape grazing/conservation in mind was limited, as the surrounding country was being broken up into ranchettes. It was at that time that we decided to make the move from the Broken Heart to the now Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch. The dream of regenerating the prairies, while improving our environment and our food supply by bringing back the buffalo continues…


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