Thursday, January 11, 2007

Learning to Adapt to the Environment

Newspaper stories have been reporting on the number of cows that died in western Kansas and eastern Colorado as a result of the winter storm that struck at year’s end. The initial figure included 3,000 cows; revised figures, including the number of cows killed at feedlots, where grass fed cows are fattened with grains before slaughter (see Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation), now estimate that at least 15,000 cows have died.

This economic disaster for ranchers and feedlot owners reflects the problem of raising cattle unsuited for the climate on the Great Plains. Ranchers in the past have known similar problems during severe winters. These kinds of problems illustrate the lunacy of replacing the buffalo, a species that had adapted to the Great Plains over thousands of years, with the ill-suited beef cow. It’s true that the American government in the 19th century recognized that destroying the buffalo would effectively starve the Plains Indians and force them to rely on the government for handouts. That ethnocentric and ignorant view of the native people and that unwillingness to learn from, say, the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, and the Sioux regarding how to adapt to the Great Plains resulted in the economic problems that occurred because of severe blizzards and prolonged drought.

It’s doubtful that anyone in western Kansas and eastern Colorado will recognize the advantages of raising buffalo in place of cows. As Dan O’Brien describes in Buffalo for the Broken Heart, buffalo move aside the snow with their big heads so that they can get to the grass underneath. Frank and Deborah Popper were partially, if not totally, correct in calling for a Buffalo Commons, that is, an expanse of land in the Great Plains that has been restocked with buffalo. The Poppers recognized how suited the buffalo are to the climate of the Great Plains and understood the problems associated with using the underground aquifer to raise crops that are planted, fertilized, irrigated, and harvested using fossil fuels when both the water in the Ogallala aquifer and the fossil fuels are finite resources. Even if a large expanse of open land running from the Dakotas to Oklahoma weren’t set aside, the Poppers recognized the value of raising buffalo, the species most suited to the aridity and the temperature extremes found west of the 100th meridian. It’s true that less water is readily available now, compared to the 19th century when the Arkansas River, for example, actually contained more than a trickle of water. The amount of water required to supply buffalo would still be less than the amount currently used in agriculture. Raising buffalo would ultimately lead to hefty profits when the meat is packaged for retail at a place like Dillons or served at places like Ted’s Montana Grill in Kansas City. I haven’t yet begun to address the health benefits associated with eating buffalo instead of beef.