Readers, Dan O’Brien is a Western Renaissance man. He raises buffalo on his Cheyenne River Ranch in South Dakota, and sells his “100% grass fed, non-confined, free-roaming and humanely, field-harvested animals” for meat (no hormones or antibiotics).
He also writes books and trains hunting falcons.
The ranch is just west of Badlands National Park and North of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Two of Dan O’Brien’s memoirs are about falcons and ecology (he was one of the prime movers in the restoration of peregrine falcons in the Rocky Mountains in the 1970s and 80s), and they include The Rites of Autumn: A Falconer’s Journey Across the American West (1988) and Equinox: Life, Love, and Birds of Prey (1997).
Some of his novels are historical novels exploring Indian/white relations, and they include The Contract Surgeon and The Indian Agent.
Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch (published 2001), and Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land (2014), are his ranching memoirs.
I found Buffalo for the Broken Heart particularly fascinating, because it’s about converting a cattle ranch to a buffalo ranch.
His other novels include The Spirit of the Hills, In the Center of the Nation, Brendan Prairie and Stolen Horses.
Dan O’Brien: The Cheyenne River ranch is a unique property. The deeded land is not large – about 3,000 acres. But the ranch is surrounded by the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands which is a huge piece of federal land administered by the US Forest Service. This is public land that belongs to all Americans.
We lease about 20,000 acres of it where we run our buffalo in the wintertime. We also help manage a partner’s ranch which about 10 miles away and even larger.
It too is a combination of deeded and leased government land.
Q: I know you’ve written you got into the buffalo business in order to help reintroduce buffalo into the West, and show other buffalo ranchers they could raise grass-fed buffalo and not put the animals in feedlots, plus help with Western ecology, but if you had it to do over, would you have gotten in the buffalo business?
O’Brien: That is a damned good question. I ask myself that often and can only answer it by saying that all of us who are paying attention know that humans have created a crisis that dwarfs all other crisis, for all time.
If you care about what we have done, and continue to do, and you are not a coward and a quitter, you have to do something.
I am a Great Plains guy. I would not be any good at battling the forces that are ruining the oceans or the rain forests. I really have had no choice but to pitch in for what I hold dear and know something about.
Q: While reading your latest memoir, Wild Idea, I suspected you see buffalo in spiritual terms. Can you tell us more about that?
O’Brien: Yes, I see buffalo in spiritual terms, but I see most things in spiritual terms. I suppose that I am a Pantheist but I am not all touchy feely about any of it.
To me the spiritual is really a kind of practicality. Buffalo and everything else that makes up an ecosystem is holy – regarding it as such is very practical.
Q: I was fascinated with both your ranch memoirs. They were so detailed. Did you base them on a journal you kept?
O’Brien: Sadly, I am not a journaler. I have tried and a few times have begun – say on the first of January of some years – in earnest. I start out with detailed descriptions of my days and impressions. But by about the fifth of the month I am down to entries such as – “Snowed today. It’s real cold.”
I give up by January tenth.
Finally, for me, journaling is just another thing to do. It ends up being a chore, or worse yet, an excuse to NOT write. And I’ve got enough excuses.
Q: It seems while you feel deeply for buffalo and their connection with the land, it doesn’t bother you to kill them for meat. Why is that?
O’Brien: We are humans and we should not be freaked out about death. Of course our antiseptic culture creates revulsion for death but we all know that it is a fact. We – people, buffalo, and everything else – die. We have no control over that.
We can have some control about is HOW we die.
I have spent the last fifteen years of my life trying to give buffalo a dignified death that beats the alternative.
They seem to understand that, much better than some people
Q: Why do you enjoy training falcons and hunting with them?
O’Brien: Falconry is my golf. It is an active form of bird watching. Nothing passive about going out in the wind and grasslands and trying to orchestrate a situation where you get to watch what happens out of human sight every second of every day.
It is a metaphor for becoming a participant in life and gets my ass off the couch.
Q: You mentioned in both your ranch memoirs you are attempting to reintroduce native grasses. How is that going?
O’Brien: Reintroduction of native grasses is a very difficult job. Most of the grasses that made up the bedrock of the Great Plains are perennial grasses in a biodiverse mix of plants that take turns taking advantage of the meteorological variations from year to year.
This should be understood in its simplest form – those grasses were meant to be part of an ecosystem that is forever.
But when they are plowed up, or destroyed by over grazing, they cease to be. They are usually replaced by a few annual plants that have their own strategies for survival.
Once humans choose to encourage these invaders the perennial natives are put at a disadvantage. To reintroduce them is very expensive and very risky. (Success depends on weather and weather on the Great Plains is dicey at best.)
Still, we are seeing progress.
Our old farm fields where the native grasses were expatriated are showing signs of recovery but I will never see those fields the way they were when homesteaders brought plows into this county.
Q: How is your friend Erney Hersman, who had the stroke?
O’Brien: Erney has slowed down greatly since his stroke but he is still alive and he is still my friend. He is a big reason that I have been able to have the life I have had. If it weren’t for him I could not leave this place.
He still takes care of the falcons and the dogs, though he now spends most of his time indoors watching Gunsmoke reruns.
Q: You’re a busy guy. How do you run the ranch and the meat business, plus write, plus care for and train falcons?
O’Brien: I really don’t have a good answer for that one. I just get up early and try to go all day long. I think the balance between outdoor responsibilities and the desk job of writing aids productivity. Somehow they feed each other.
Q: How is your business doing?
O’Brien: The business is a new adventure for me. I am about as non-entrepreneurial as a guy can be. But I am learning. Wild idea Buffalo Co. is not a big money maker but it was never intended to be. We put everything back into the business and the land.
Q. I have the impression Americans feel injured by the slaughter of the buffalo and the loss of the wild in our country; that buffalo are our symbol for wholeness, which we are seeking. Do you agree?
O’Brien: Yes, I agree. The buffalo is the icon of what it means to be an American. Strength, endurance, freedom of movement, purity of purpose.