Dakota Midday: Dan O'Brien's Wild Idea

Apr 30, 2015

Bison once numbered in the tens of millions in a range stretching across North America from Alaska to Mexico. Many native wildlife species depended on massive herds of grazing bison to shape the ecosystem. By the late 19th Century there were only about a thousand bison left, victims of hunting and western expansion. But today there are some 400,000 buffalo in North America according to the National Bison Association.

Dan O'Brien on the Cheyenne River Ranch
Credit Charles Michael Ray SDPB

About 1,000 of them live on Dan O’Brien’s Cheyenne River Ranch just west of Badlands National Park and north of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Nearly 20 years ago, O’Brien started the Wild Idea Buffalo Company to help keep his small ranch going and to offer an alternative to industrialized meat production. But starting the enterprise wasn’t easy, especially for someone who admits he knew nothing about business.

O’Brien’s latest book, Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land, is an account of his efforts to raise buffalo with dignity and respect as a sustainable business. It’s also a love story to the family and friends who assist him with his quest to “ease the Great Plains ecosystem back from the abyss of industrial agriculture."

Like many of his earlier novels and memoirs, Wild Idea expresses his love of the western South Dakota landscape, while also capturing the difficulty of living in this often harsh land and the importance of friends and family in surviving.

O’Brien is also a wildlife biologist and falconer who helped restore peregrine falcons to the Rocky Mountains and save them from extinction. He joined the Dakota Midday Book Club for a discussion of buffalo and his writing career.