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Ecosystemwide sustainability is goal for O'Brien


Brookings, S.D. (KELO AM) - Before starting the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, Dan O'Brien worked as an endangered species biologist. During his efforts in preventing the extinction of the peregrine falcon, O'Brien had an idea. 

"It dawned on me that a better idea was to save the whole ecosystem, not a specific species," O'Brien said. "When the peregrine falcon came off the endangered list, I thought how can we do this for the system instead of a specific species." 

His initial thought was the buffalo and the impact it had on the Great Plains ecosystem. O'Brien will be an environmental track speaker at the Plain Green Conference the afternoon of Sept. 12. This year's conference will be held at the new Hilton Garden Inn Downtown in Sioux Falls. To learn more about the daylong event, visit the Plain Green website

"You can't take 50 million herbivores off the landscape and expect everything to be fine," he said. "Even though buffalo are the icon of what we're doing, they're just part of what we're doing. If you have healthy buffalo, you're going to have healthy plants, healthy birds ... and have healthy people eating that meat." 

Starting with 12 buffalo and 1,000 acres in 1997, O'Brien has seen Wild Idea Buffalo grow to 1,000 buffalo on 60,000 acres. "I'm interested in ecosystemwide sustainability. I'm very heavy into the idea of species diversity, plants, animals, insects, the whole thing. That's the only path to real sustainability," O'Brien said.

"I don't think you can separate the elements and say this one is sustainable and this one isn't. They're either sustainable or they're not. For example, if you're raising a crop and killing another species by raising that crop, that's not being sustainable. "We're still tiny when looking at the problem of sustainability," he continued. "We're in the early stages of that process. There's a good chance we can't bring our planet to sustainable. We're going to be dead and gone before the jury comes back on that one." 

Because of that timeframe, O'Brien wants to influence others, particularly college students. "The hope is to get the young people on board with sustainability," said O'Brien, noting he has written several books on the topic of creating an alternate model for Great Plains agriculture. "The quest for more, better and cheaper food has gotten us into a hole that is much greater than the problem of growing food," O'Brien said.

"The hard part about growing good food is that it is not cheap. I'd like to have people come away from the conference with the thought we can't have cheap food the way we have it. The final bill-health care, biodiversity, climate change, carbon sequestration-there's a whole suite of problems we're not paying for. I want attendees to realize we have to make better decisions to pay this bill."