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Wild Idea

Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land

Dan O'Brien

Publication Year: 2014

For more than forty years the prairies of South Dakota have been Dan O’Brien’s home. Working as a writer and an endangered-species biologist, he became convinced that returning grass-fed, free-roaming buffalo to the grasslands of the northern plains would return natural balance to the region and reestablish the undulating prairie lost through poor land management and overzealous farming. In 1998 he bought his first buffalo and began the task of converting a little cattle ranch into an ethically run buffalo ranch.
Wild Idea is a book about how good food choices can influence federal policies and the integrity of our food system, and about the dignity and strength of a legendary American animal. It is also a book about people: the daughter coming to womanhood in a hard landscape, the friend and ranch hand who suffers great tragedy, the venture capitalist who sees hope and opportunity in a struggling buffalo business, and the husband and wife behind the ranch who struggle daily, wondering if what they are doing will ever be enough to make a difference. At its center, Wild Idea is about a family and the people and animals that surround them—all trying to build a healthy life in a big, beautiful, and sometimes dangerous land.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-vi

Part One

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pp. 3-18

SOME SUMMER NIGHTS, WHEN I STEP OUT ONTO MY RANCH house porch, I am met by the immense, roiling waves of color from the northern lights. In other seasons I find coiled rattlesnakes or perhaps a wind so cold that skin will freeze in minutes....

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pp. 19-35

THE FIRST TIME I MET JILL, SHE WAS WORKING THE FRONT end of her new restaurant, The American Pie Bistro. I’d been out of town for a few months and upon my return had heard that The American Pie was a cut above anything that Rapid City had ever experienced. I’d heard the food was great, but no one told me about Jill. She met me at the front door with a menu in her hand and a smile on her face. “Are you here to join Mr. Harlan?” she asked....

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pp. 36-58

THE LAKOTA PEOPLE HAVE A CREATION MYTH THAT MAKES more sense to me than the stories of any mainstream religion. Instead of Adam and Eve finding themselves in the Garden of Eden or the Sons of Burr lifting Earth from the sea, the Lakota people figure it all started at Wind Cave, in the center of the Black Hills....

Part Two

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pp. 61-80

I DON’T BELIEVE IN FATE, BUT SOMETIMES WEIRD COINcidences crop up that make you wonder. Like the time I got home from Minnesota, after I’d spent many months coming to the conclusion that our little ranch was too small to have much impact on the health of the Great Plains, when a message was waiting for me from a friend who wanted me to partner with him in buying a larger...

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pp. 81-100

JILIAN WAS GONE FOR ONLY A COUPLE OF MONTHS, BUT it was still too long. Jill and I worried about her and made a special effort to go to all her sports events and have her out to the ranch on the weekends. Even though she wasn’t happy with her father she was reluctant to submit to our discipline and, in the end, it took an emissary from France to bring her home....

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pp. 101-120

BY THE MIDDLE OF APRIL I WAS ENGULFED IN A HIGHER education malaise. Spring was burgeoning, but in a Minnesota way. The birds were returning, to be sure, but in Minnesota you have to stand still or creep slowly around a tree trunk to see them. The geese are of the golf course variety. They exude none of the mystery of the long- distance flyers that are heralded by faint honking and appear over the grasslands a mile high and five miles out....

Part Three

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pp. 123-145

THE LAST OF THE BUFFALO WERE MOVED DOWN TO THE Cheyenne River Ranch in late May. Our plan was to graze them for the summer on the part of the ranch that we owned then move them to the National Grasslands— government permitted land— in the fall. We had two grazing permits— Indian Creek and Big Corral— and when we bought the ranch the permits were set up with the Forest Service to allow 273 mother beef cows and their...

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pp. 146-173

THE DROUGHT WAS BROKEN BY AN EARLY WINTER STORM, followed by months of continual snow and wind. Jilian drove back and forth to school and played basketball for the New Underwood Tigers. She was accepted at the University of Hawaii. What had been a year of constant worry about the ill effects of too little rain morphed into dealing with the stress of traveling on treacherous...

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pp. 174-186

WHEN YOU HAVE TO BUY A PIECE OF MACHINERY OR YOU want to send your little girl on her first international trip or away to college, it is wonderful to have a good-paying job. Though I didn’t want to leave home, I considered myself lucky as I streaked eastward through the upper reaches of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the rate of unemployment hovers chronically at 80 percent....

Part Four

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pp. 189-201

JILL AND I WERE AT LOOSE ENDS BECAUSE CODY HAD rented a house in the energy boomtown of Gillette, Wyoming— 150 miles away. He was putting in long, lucrative hours welding the broken parts of huge earthmoving machines that tore coal, oil, and gas out of the earth. Jilian would join him very soon. The fact that she was being spirited away from us had made me skeptical of the world and of people with the power to do us harm....

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pp. 202-216

AFTER WE WATCHED OBAMA’S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH WE sat in our living room and talked easily about the dreams of Wild Idea. Carla and Vin had done their homework. They had been discreet customers for almost a year and knew our products better than I did. They had studied our website and picked up on the importance of conservation and social justice. They asked questions...

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pp. 217-224

ONE OF THE FIRST QUESTIONS PETER BINAS ASKED ME was a hard one: “What’s Wild Idea’s EBITA for the last couple quarters?” Luckily the question came in an email and I had time to look up the meaning of EBITA: Earnings Before Interest, Taxes And something else. Until that point in the life of Wild Idea Buffalo Company, Jill had been doing the books with the occasional help...

Part Five

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pp. 227-235

THERE IS A PICTURE OF JILIAN AT ABOUT TEN YEARS OLD. She holds a hamster in her cupped hands and her face is inches away from the hamster’s head. Her smile is as bright as any flower. It was her trademark glow, but by the time she was twentyone Jill and I wondered if we would ever see it again. After Gus came into her life the smile began to make a comeback, like a prairie sunflower after a summer thunderstorm....

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pp. 236-250

EVEN SMALL CITIES HAVE A ROUGH SIDE OF TOWN, AND Rapid City is no exception. On the poorer north side of town the houses are small, the yards have little grass, and maintenance is lax. The area is populated by a few airmen from Ellsworth Air Force Base, a smattering of students, and most of Rapid’s displaced Lakota people. They cluster around a few poorly built churches and...

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pp. 251-264

THERE IS A 320-ACRE PORTION OF PASTURE THAT WAS A wheat field for a period of perhaps two decades before we moved to the Cheyenne River Ranch. In one of the first rounds of a government program to take wheat land out of production, this parcel had been plowed up and planted back to grass. Whoever owned that little piece of pasture at the time got paid for not growing wheat....

Previous Works by the Author

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pp. 265-265

E-ISBN-13: 9780803286382
E-ISBN-10: 0803286384
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803250963

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 884725858
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Wild Idea

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Subject Headings

  • O'Brien, Dan, 1947-.
  • Ranchers -- South Dakota -- Biography.
  • Bison farming -- South Dakota -- Broken Heart Ranch.
  • Ranch life -- South Dakota -- Broken Heart Ranch.
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