Story by Colton Jones:
Fall is beginning to show its face out at the Cheyenne River Ranch. The landscape will soon slip into a transition of colors from greens, yellows and purples, to bronze and golds. The few trees that do exist on the prairie will start their descent to dormancy in an amazing display of the color spectrum.
To me, this time is always a reminder of how unique and resilient prairie ecology is. Although many native plants and animals “tuck in” for the winter, much of what seems lifeless above the prairies’ precious soil is in fact, a reserve of energy for the conscientious consumer.
Currently, our buffalo are enjoying a paradise of flourishing native grasses - little blue stem, western wheat grass, blue gramma and side oats gramma are all exceeding normal heights due to an unusually wet spring and summer. Because buffalo are an extension of the soil and grasses that make up the Great Plains ecology, they too are displaying an opportune year by accumulating a grass “fat cap” on their carcasses.
The conversion of energy from the sun into plant material, to pumping blood and muscle can be seen in full scale during the growing season. What may not be as evident, is when the prairies’ producers shut down above ground leaving behind energy reserves in the form of dormant vegetation, which are continually utilized by native consumers such as buffalo.
Following our herds departure to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in November, will come cold days and undoubtedly snow. This is when an intact ecosystem possessing all of its native inner workings becomes important to the survivorship of the bison and all other plants and creatures that call the Great Plains home. The grasses I mentioned earlier are key because it is they who are engineered by years of evolution to sustain their grazing counterparts. For good reason too.
Winter grazing is key to soil and plant health as it is a way to convert unused energy back into a form that can again be used by the plant at a later time. The buffalo benefit from this as well because it is only these grasses that can survive the extreme seasonal changes that the Great Plains experience. At the same time, native plants provide the buffalo with the valuable nutritional requirements that are laid on their bodies during a South Dakota winter. Both gramma grasses and native wheat grasses possess a surprising amount of protein in their dormant state that non-natives such as crested wheat grass lack.
Non-native plants and animals do not have this evolutionary framework and therefore lean on human influence for their survivorship. In turn, the ecosystems energy flow comes to a standstill. This means the amount of biomass that could potentially be created in any given year is cut in half.
Although I’m not excited about limited daylight and cold winter nights, it always brings me great joy to see a cycle unlike any other carry on as nature intended. Not, because the influence of man, but because of survivorship sculpted by nature. This is TRUE sustainability.