Great Plains Bison

May 30, 2018

Dan O’Brien speaks for the American bison. He has observed the resurgence of bison numbers on the plains over the past generation. The species is no longer endangered per se. Genetically, the union of previously inbred lines in the burgeoning herds of the twenty-first century has improved and restored the animal. Still, O’Brien is not impressed.

He wants the buffalo to be what they were created or evolved to be--free-ranging grazing animals. Animals that, as a keystone species, themselves shaped the prairie environment on which they subsisted. He still sees too many fences. He is particularly unhappy that most bison raised for commerce finish their lives in feedlots, acquiring a little marbling before going to slaughter and consumption.

It’s not right, he says. “We should be able to do better. . . . Certainly we can figure out an honorable model for our ongoing relationship with buffalo and the landscape that gave them life.”

There you see the linkage that animates O’Brien’s thought--“buffalo and the landscape that gave them life.” For, as he says, “Of all humanity’s clever tools, perhaps the greatest is metaphor. Buffalo can serve as the metaphor for all wildness, and the lesson in their near extinction and return can inform us all about bringing the planet back into balance.”

These visionary ideas come from a slender new book by O’Brien, Great Plains Bison. It’s a volume in the Discover the Great Plains series at University of Nebraska Press. I think the work is flawed, but not one to be dismissed.

Three things about the book detract from it somewhat, the first of which is errors of fact when the author gets outside his expertise and gets into more general critiques of environmental issues. At one point, for instance, he confuses glyphosate and 2,4-D.

Second, on the specific subject of bison, some of the best recent work, such as that of historian Dan Flores, is not used.

And third, given his personal experience, along with the growing literature on buffalo as wildlife and as livestock, O’Brien could have given us more about the animal itself--grazing habits, natural history, physiology, and so on. This, too, would have served the Nebraska book series better.

In two other ways, though, O’Brien brings us a good message for life on the plains. First, he is dead right about bison as metaphor, and perhaps should go farther than just the conventional idea of “wildness.” Late in the last century I studied the rise of the bison industry on the plains. One of the most intriguing things I learned was that the keepers of bison saw themselves as sharing in bison virtues. They admired their beasts and learned from them.

Moreover, as O’Brien launches his more general critique as to land use and human occupation on the plains, he provokes a certain discomfort we should welcome. Bison, and certain other elements in regional life, are public goods we should talk about and attend to.

Perhaps without intending to, O’Brien tells us where this impulse for the regional good will come from. He tells us of the personal importance to him of the Stronghold Table, where survivors of the killings at Wounded Knee in 1890 took refuge. His South Dakota buffalo herd now grazes within sight of the tragic landmark. Metaphors, again.

It is from such personal connections to place, and history, that we draw inspiration for making good lives on the Great Plains.

~Tom Isern