It seemed like a wild idea when I responded “yes” to an invitation from Wild Idea Buffalo in Rapid City, South Dakota, to join them for their 20th anniversary celebration on National Bison Day on November 3. Little did I know as I was driving the 353 miles from my home on the plains of Northern Colorado that I would be meeting other fans of the company who had flown and driven in from near and far. There were about 200 of us from North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming to Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, and North Carolina. We gathered, travelers practically from coast to coast, on Friday to tour the buffalo ranch and on Saturday for an afternoon of fabulous feasting on bison dishes and a full itinerary of educational lectures, videos, and tours of the plant and harvest trailer.
I first learned about Wild Idea Buffalo a few years ago when I read Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch by Dan O’Brien. Broken Heart explains how Dan converted a Black Hills cattle ranch into a viable bison ranch and how he and his wife Jill turned the operation into a successful company. It’s a book about how food choices can influence federal policies and the integrity of our food system. Their business is about preserving and honoring the dignity and strength of this legendary animal of the Great Plains. The book explains the philosophy behind Wild Idea Buffalo about realigning the way we live with the health of ecological systems. Sustainable living is not always simple or easy. Since reading the book, I have ordered and eaten Wild Idea’s humanely raised and harvested bison meat. They ship to like-minded customers in all 50 states.
The Code of Ethics of the National Bison Association prohibits the use of growth hormones in bison production, and bison industry protocols further prohibit the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics and animal by-products. Nutritional studies conducted at North Dakota State University reveal that bison meat is a highly nutrient-dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, mineral, and fatty acids to its caloric value. Comparisons to other meat sources have also shown that bison meat has a greater concentration of iron, as well as some of the essential fatty acids necessary for human well-being. To me, it is a delicious and healthier alternative to beef, at least that of the mass-produced variety.
In addition to being a bison rancher Dan is a falconer, endangered species biologist, writer and author of 14 books (fiction, history, memoir). Jill is marketer and cook extraordinaire and leads a small staff of family (including daughter Jillian and son-in-law Colton) and about 30 enthusiastic employees who manage the herd, process the meat, and ship to customers around the country. They provide a blog and recipes on their web site.
We gathered at the plant and I rode the 25 miles or so to the ranch down bumpy gravel roads in a 1998 Chevy truck driven by Bob from North Dakota with Mark, a contractor from nearby Spearfish riding shotgun and Ashley, an armored truck driver from Grand Rapids, Michigan and I sharing back seat. It was a cold, drizzly and dreary day where the landscape presented miles of rolling and rugged hills of golden ocher colored native grasses topped by gray skies as fall was doing its best to turn to winter. Once there, we all piled into an old white Suburban that was painted in zebra stripes, with doors removed, or onto stacks of straw bales piled on a flatbed towed behind. Dan drove us around for a couple of hours, explaining ecology to those in the vehicle while Colton did the same for those of us in the back.
We got a pretty good picture of how their herds of about 1000 bison roam 36,000 acres on their deeded ranch and adjacent Forest Service leased land. We learned about the enormity of the plains, how the buffalo hooves massage the prairies in ways that stimulate the growth of grass. We learned about the native grasses like blue grama and how there are now invasive non-native grasses as well. Colton explained that you can judge the health of a prairie pasture, in part, by the length of the grass, the type of grass, and the quality of bird and other wildlife.
The ranch is smack in the middle of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands on the Cheyenne River, not far from Stronghold Table, a natural fortress on the southern edge of the Badlands. It is reputed to be the last site of the Lakota Ghost Dance in the 19th century to bring back the buffalo and a good way of life. The Ghost Dance was central to the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre but that’s another story, a long and sad one. The land emanates a feeling of sacredness and I plan to read more on its compelling history.
With few expectations of what I would experience on this tour, the most noticeable remembrance is how the bison were curious and walked right up to us in our rig, with their soulful eyes, gentle nature evident, almost as if they wished to be petted. Which of course would not be a good idea. No wonder that in the history of buffalo, they are thought of with reverence and respect, even deep affection. Their story of near extinction is heartbreaking and it is heart-warming to see them coming back in pockets of the West like this ranch I was privileged to see.
Saturday’s festivities at Wild Idea company headquarters featured a full afternoon of education and discussion followed by a bison feast. Highlights included two films, one about Wild Idea’s natural harvest of bison in the field. The buffalo are born, live and die on the prairie, taken with a single bullet shot to the head in their natural environment. In respect to this magnificent animal and their spiritual and cultural connection to Native Americans, a smudge stick is lit before their harvest in their native environment. The second film Unbroken Ground, presented by Patagonia, touched on various ways to save the planet through regenerative agriculture, sustainable fisheries, and responsible choices to keep life healthy.
Saving the grasslands, through returning bison to their native habitat, while providing healthy meat is at the heart of the mission of Wild Idea Buffalo. Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder, and Dan O’Brien, Wild Idea Buffalo founder, bantered on stage about ways that their companies are doing their parts to contribute to this important cause.
Patagonia recently changed their vision statement to simply helping to save the planet. As Dan summed it up, Wild Idea Buffalo started from his interest in birds, in saving the birds. “We need birds and preserving ecosystems, like grasslands for the buffalo, will help save the planet,” he explained. “We have to step up and do our parts to leave the land better than we found it.”
As the afternoon progressed, we were entertained by Wambli Sky (White Eagle) Native Drum and Dance Group and World Champion Hoop Dancer Jasmine Pickner-Bell. The bison feast ranged from tongue canapes to indigenous tacos (with polenta instead of tortillas), prime rib, fall-apart-tender chuck roast, and sliders, all served with wine pairings.
For more information on Wild Idea Buffalo and to order delicious, healthy bison meat, check out wildideabuffalo.com.