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O’Brien discusses philosophies on buffalo ranching

<n O’Brien, Headley Distinguished Visitor-in-Residence in Environmental Studies, gave a presentation on May 11 in the Boliou Hall auditorium where he discussed his philosophies concerning buffalo ranching and a successful career as a writer.

O’Brien, who first spoke at Carleton eight years ago, has been working with students at the College for much of the past decade. “My connection to Carleton, to the ENTS program, has really influenced me positively,” he said, continuing, “you come here and have meaningful conversations with everyone you meet…it gives you hope.”

Part of his presentation was dedicated to reading an excerpt from a book he is currently working on. “When I’m [at Carleton], I try to talk about my current work,” said O’Brien. “Before I came to Carleton, I thought I’d written my last book,” he continued, “Since then, I’ve written three and I’m working on another.”

O’Brien’s Buffalo for a Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch, which was published in 2002, is one of his most critically acclaimed works. He recounts his personal story of restoring the Broken Heart Ranch in South Dakota and establishing an area for buffalo to graze naturally.

He decided that he wanted to “exert a greater influence on how the Great Plains are managed,” by “moving them [away] from industrial agriculture.” It is because of this philosophy that O’Brien had to think long and hard about an offer he had received concerning the expansion of his business.

After being guaranteed that his way of naturally raising buffalo to be sold to market would not be altered (and learning that a Carleton/Harvard graduate would be involved in the process), O’Brien agreed to the expansion. Commenting on the coincidental involvement of a Carleton grad, he said, “the web of Carleton influence is everywhere—and it’s a good web.”

Despite a significant change in the form of building his own processing plant, O’Brien continued to raise his buffalo in accordance with his specific vision. According to him, the buffalo “must be raised on grass—no hormones, no feed lots, no selective breeding—basically how the [Native American] tribes used to raise them.”

However, in order to better meet demands for his naturally raised herd, O’Brien continued to get “buffalo from Native Americans [from] three tribal herds” that were willing to adhere to his philosophy. He believes that if more people did this, then the Great Plains would be in better shape.

In an attempt to avoid handpicking which buffalo are sent to market, O’Brien says he and his associates try not to select the buffalo based on physical characteristics. “There’s a randomness to our selection process,” he said.

O’Brien stressed the importance of the buffalo’s impact on the Great Plain’s environment. Simply put, if left to their own devices, the buffalo’s interaction with the environment is different from the interactions they would have under more artificially controlled conditions.

“Each day, the buffalo want to go to a place that’s a little different [to graze],” he said.
In the end, O’Brien emphasized the importance of being in tune with the interactions of the natural world, saying, “diversity is what it’s all about.”

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