Even before World War I, buffalo were effectively out of the picture in America. That war, and the one that followed twenty years later, intensified the pressure to create on the Great Plains a future that was radically different from the past that had served humans for tens of thousands of years. This new vision did not include buffalo. The difference between the past and the future visions of the Great Plains was wrapped up in the differences between hunting and farming, nomadic and sedentary culture, living with and fighting against nature. At its core, the new thrust of humans on the Great Plains would be to achieve a kind of pastoral paradise through the use of technology. The first step had been to clear the stage, and that meant getting rid of the buffalo and their Indian cousins. That task was mostly finished by 1900, but to completely change the nature of the Great Plains was a job even more massive than the near extermination of a couple of species. A string of perceived problems would have to be overcome: lack of people, lack of soil fertility, lack of water, lack of suitable crops, and a plethora of pests that preyed upon and competed with the crops that were intended to cover the land.
To the European mind, the Great Plains always seemed empty. Of course, this was a misconception, the Great Plains were always full of life, but it was the kind of life that was not centered on human beings, and that troubled the early pioneers, religious people, industrialists, and developers. The drive to expand the numbers of humans and their store of material goods was in full swing by the first decades of the twentieth century. If America, and indeed the entire world, was to double, triple, quadruple its human population it would need more human food. A good way to do that would be to increase the fertility of land that was flat enough to farm, and that included the Great Plains of North America.
Nitrogen makes things grow; the atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen, but nitrogen in the air is not directly accessible to plants. There are some plants that suck it out of the air and deposit it in the ground, where other plants can use it to grow verdant and tall. Unfortunately, during the settlement of the Great Plains, most native nitrogen-fixing plants were not deemed particularly useful for humans and, if they were considered at all, they were usually considered weeds and destroyed where possible. Besides, they could never produce the volume of nitrogen fertilizer that would be needed to convert the prairies to farm fields.
The solution to the Great Plains’ fertility problem came from experiments with military munitions during the twentieth- century wars. A nearly endless supply of nitrogen fertilizer was found by two German scientists — Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch — in their quest to supply their country with enough explosives to wage worldwide war. The chemical difference between nitrogen for fertilizer and nitrite for TNT is small, and once Haber figured out a way to extract nitrogen from the air Bosch went to work industrializing the procedure. The Haber-Bosch process was demonstrated in the lab in 1909, and by the beginning of World War II the combatants were producing millions of pounds of TNT annually — enough to destroy many of Europe’s cities and kill millions of people. A great irony was that both Haber and Bosch won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the years leading up to World War II.
But, in an even greater irony, we now produce about five hundred million tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year, and though much of it is intended to increase land fertility, it is dramatically decreasing the biodiversity of the old buffalo kingdom by spreading industrial monoculture farming across the Great Plains and poisoning most of the waterways on the continent. When Europeans first set foot in the New World they found a phenomenally diverse ecosystem where a human could drink freely from almost any stream. The nitrogen fertilizer that was a byproduct from the Haber-Bosch process was more lastingly devastating to the Great Plains than the nitrite bombs were to European cities.
Through a system of state, federal, and territorial water laws every creek, stream, lake, river, and underground aquifer in the Great Plains was assigned to owners—sometimes local men and women trying to improve their little farms, but more often to wealthy absentee developers. Every water source that the buffalo had freely drunk from now belonged to some human being or group of human beings and was undrinkable for humans with- out expensive treatment. Beginning with rivers and the water from snow runoff, America went about the job of cataloging, containing, and developing the water of the Great Plains. Most of it was allocated for agricultural use, but some went for flood control, recreation, and power generation.
The Ogallala Aquifer is an ocean of water that underlies 174,000 square miles of the Great Plains. The amount of water in the aquifer is estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to be about three billion acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot.) It is one of the world’s largest reservoirs of fresh water, with a storage capacity so large that rainfall could not have filled it. Instead, the water in the Ogallala Aquifer is ancient — mostly ice melt from the last ice age. It is part of a system of aquifers that are interconnected to rivers and streams from South Dakota to the panhandle of Texas — tracing the bulk of the area that once supported all of the southern buffalo herd and part of the northern herd.
Beginning in the 1940s farmers began to tap the Ogallala Aquifer to supply irrigation water for their newly created fields of corn, beans, and wheat where perennial grasses had grown successfully, without irrigation, for many thousands of years. At first things worked well, but after World War II, when farming began to become an industry, the water levels in the Ogallala began to fall. The first water sources to go were at the top of the aquifer, where the rivers touch the surface. At first farmers believed it was just the normal cycle of Great Plains drought that was making the rivers go dry but soon it became apparent that irrigation was lowering the water level in the aquifer.
According to a New York Times article from 2013, Kansas alone has over three million acres of irrigated corn watered from probably fifteen thousand circle irrigators pumping hundreds and sometimes thousands of gallons of water per minute. The result of this level of irrigation throughout the Great Plains has been a decline of at least 10 percent of the total storage volume of the Ogallala Aquifer since the 1950s, and the depletion is accelerating at an increasing rate. Many of the rivers where the buffalo once watered are now dry. The playa lakes that also represented the top of the aquifer are now plowed over to plant more corn. Perhaps the most outrageous water boondoggle of all time is the planned theft of water from beneath those playa lakes by the oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens. He has finagled the rights to the Ogallala Aquifer and plans to pump water from under the southern Great Plains to Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and cities beyond.
Many water projects have been too large even for individuals like T. Boone Pickens to finance. In such cases, federal or state governments collaborated in the dream of turning arid lands into gardens. These schemes were often political boondoggles plagued with corruption, poor engineering, and incredible lack of foresight. Massive irrigation projects were often little more than government-subsidized favors for wealthy friends or vote-getting strategies aimed at the farmers or the promoters who would profit when cheap, dry land could be sold as irrigated farms. Many of these projects failed, and alteration of the natural flow of rivers and other watercourses damaged the land through erosion or the introduction of invasive plants that, when the grand projects finally went bankrupt, made repopulation by native plants and animals nearly impossible.
Even with the failures, these projects increased the annual harvests from America’s agricultural sector. While a few developers and speculators were made rich, these projects never had the potential of making farmers rich. In fact, already-subsidized irrigated farms were soon doubly subsidized with similar government programs available to dryland famers. In a perversion of the economic system that spawned them, the upshot of these government programs was to take the risk out of farming. Capitalism cannot function without risk, and the farmers were on their way to becoming wards of the state. This system of government support was intended to keep people on the land, and to a large extent, it did. But among the unintended consequences was that the farmers were tied hard and fast to the land by bank payments and poverty and were supported by nonfarm taxpayers.
As the Great Plains was converted from a polyculture of many hundreds of plants that thrived in arid and semiarid grasslands to a few monocultures that needed continuous applications of human technology, the insects that had been held in check by the biodiversity of the plains moved into the void. No longer did the natural mosaic of different plants limit the effect of pests by dispersing their favorite plants and making serious infestation nearly impossible.
Since the beginning of time humans have been locked in combat with insects. Bugs have bitten them, bothered them, infected them with diseases, and eaten their crops. And humans, for their part, have fought them with slaps, smoke, dislocation, skin ointments, and grumbled oaths. The wide use of atomizer sprayers in the early years of the twentieth century made the use of lead- and arsenic-based sprays for killing insects feasible for small areas such as homes and livestock facilities, but when insects began to invade the immense new grain fields of the Great Plains in the middle decades of the twentieth century the battle escalated. DDT is a synthetic insecticide that was developed by a Swiss scientist named Paul Müller in 1944 and aimed mostly toward the eradication of mosquitoes. When it was discovered that DDT would kill an array of insect pests that plagued monoculture crops like those recently introduced to the Great Plains, the chemical was sprayed wholesale.
Why we thought that a synthetic compound that replaced lead- and arsenic-based sprays was harmless is hard to under- stand. Certainly we wanted a product that would kill only targeted insects, and the corporations that produced DDT encouraged that hope. But of course there is no Santa Claus, and there is no way to kill a single species without affecting all the other species. The unintended consequence of spraying insecticides was to kill insects indiscriminately. The insect world is a major pillar of almost every ecosystem and is of paramount importance on the Great Plains. The destruction of insects and insect diversity delivered a serious blow to all the flowering plants that the buffalo kingdom had once been famous for. The pollinators of these plants were attacked, and great monoculture fields that had once been rich with diversity became biodeserts. The devastation created by the use of DDT and similar pesticides also reached into the avian world and the world of mammals. Rachel Carson blew the whistle on pesticides in her book Silent Spring. The result of the outcry would eventually lead to a nearly worldwide ban on DDT and its ilk. But in the meantime (and for decades after the ban) the birds that ate infected insects — and the birds that ate those birds—laid eggs with shells too thin to hatch, causing bird populations to plummet. DDT is still detected in our food and in our bodies, and still we have little understanding of its ongoing damage.
Insects were not the only opportunistic life-form to capitalize on changes that humans brought to the Great Plains. Like insects and rust, weeds never sleep. They are programmed to fill any opening where other plants are absent. Anyone who has ever tried to garden knows the determination of bind- weed, wild lettuce, and burdock. Most invasive species were brought to North America in bags of seed and, purposefully or incidentally, planted in the New World where they had no natural enemies and lots of room to grow.
During World War II, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, programs to develop chemical weapons also produced aerosols that could kill plants. Those compounds were quickly adopted by the budding agriculture industry. This new technology was turned against what humans considered weeds and, in the case of the buffalo kingdom, any plant that competed with farmed crops. The idea was to tweak the humans’ killing compounds in such a way as to make them more selective killers — capable of killing unwanted plants while not harming the desirable plants. This idea was embraced by agriculturalists around the world but particularly on the Great Plains of America.
For those applications where the goal is to kill all plants except those being farmed, Monsanto invented a particularly potent compound called Roundup. (Its military brother is Agent Orange—developed to defoliate Vietnamese jungles.) The immense mixed-greens salad of the Great Plains that buffalo had evolved to eat was being destroyed and replaced with grain-producing plants that buffalo, even if they still existed in numbers and could fight through the barbed wire to get to them, were poorly equipped to digest. In addition, many of Roundup’s targeted plants had once created habitat for ground- nesting birds and other indigenous creatures. With these plants gone, Great Plains species have suffered an enormous loss of habitat. Populations have crashed.
Through ignorance, greed, or a horrible cynicism, catastrophic destruction of insects and weeds and the closing of the land was heralded as progress. Another area of similar progress has been the improvement of crop seeds. For centuries mankind has been selectively breeding grains to reduce their height. In effect, the crops that migrated in burlap sacks to the Great Plains were dwarfs of once wild plants from other continents. The reason for the development of dwarfs was to direct the energy of the plant into the production of the seed head, and so increase the amount of grain produced per plant. By the time corn and wheat got to the Great Plains, from Mexico via Indian trade routes and importation from Europe and Asia via settlers, the seed heads were greatly developed and the heights of the plants were diminished, making the plants more productive and less vulnerable to the destructive prairie winds. But the reengineering of non–Great Plains grains was soon subjected to the steamroller of agricultural production, and companies like Pioneer and Prairie Valley began to cross individual plants to produce even more productive plants. The process is called hybridization, and the idea is to cross unrelated plants to create what is called hybrid vigor. It works great, except the offspring are often not fertile and so the time-honored practice of farmers saving some of their crop for seed to be planted the next year is rendered impossible. The farmer has to buy new seed every year—a disadvantage for the men and women on the land but a boon for the industry that produces the hybrid seed.
Very little of the grain that has replaced the native grass on the Great Plains goes to feed people. Most of it is used for ethanol and to fatten animals for slaughter — animals that contribute to our over-intake of fat and the maladies that accompany obesity. Contrary to popular belief, this system is only a few decades old. It arose from the need to get rid of excess grains grown with the help of government subsidies and now encompasses an industry that creates about thirty-three million “fat” cattle a year—a number roughly equivalent to the number of buffalo that roamed the same grasslands where the feedlots now stand. The feedlot industry is a massive factory system that is alien to historic husbandry. Still, there is huge money in an industry masquerading as a connector of humans to the land. Feedlots are not family farms.
My family and I are not crop farmers. We produce completely grass-fed buffalo, and so we are farmers of grass. We know that plowing up native grasses destroys an ancient eco- system of plants and that the destruction cascades to the wild animals, birds, and insects. The plants of the healthy pastures pull CO2 from the air and, with the help of some microbes in healthy soil, split the carbon (C) away from the oxygen (O2) and deposit it in the ground, where it can’t create havoc in the atmosphere and cause climate change. As a happy side effect, the native grasses expire those two severed atoms of oxygen and make them available for us to breathe. The reason that the native perennial grasses do such a good job of this nifty trick is that sometimes 90 percent of a perennial plant’s mass is below the surface of the soil. It doesn’t die in the winter. It keeps growing every year, and carbon — sucked from the air — builds with the root system. Of course, when someone plows up such a plant and root system and replaces it with an annual plant that lives for only part of one year and has no time to build an extensive root system, the ability to sequester carbon in the soil is reduced by a huge percentage. The fertility of the soil is hauled away in grain trucks each fall, and the carbon is released into the atmosphere.
Many people would disagree, but one of the lucky things about the American Great Plains is that, for the first hundred years of settlement, there was seldom enough rain to grow grain. The Great Plains was always considered one of the world’s greatest grasslands but a poor place to farm. From the time of the buffalo right up through the era of the cowboy it has nourished countless herbivores. Cattle, sheep, elk, antelope, and particularly buffalo grazed on the renewable grass, and the fertility and the carbon stayed in the ground where they belong. But now, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, all that is changing.
As I have already said, farming is about nurturing a single kind of plant and destroying all other plants that can compete with that chosen plant. In places like the Great Plains, where moisture is in short supply, a farmer’s job is to make sure that the crop he chooses to grow gets as much of the rainfall as is possible. On most of the Great Plains, crops do not have enough water to grow unless all the competition is killed. Many twentieth-century agricultural maps have a precipitation line on about the one hundredth meridian that marks the frontier of profitable dryland farming. Until recently, respect for that line saved the middle and western Great Plains’ grasses that harbored most of the living things, pumped oxygen into the air, and sequestered billions of tons of carbon each year. The use of plant killers like Roundup moved the precipitation line a little bit to the west, where the climate was drier, but lack of rainfall still managed to keep farming from completely destroying huge portions of the old buffalo kingdom. Then came genetically modified organisms — GMOs.
In the late twentieth century, scientists found a way to change the genetic makeup of certain crops so that Roundup, and other chemicals normally poisonous to all plants, had no effect on these genetically modified crops but killed everything else. This process dramatically increased yields by destroying the “weeds,” not only before the crops were planted but after they were growing too. As usual, the innovation was lauded as a miracle that would help the world produce much more food. GMOs, Roundup-resistant crops, not only increased yields of existing cropland but expanded farming into areas where it had never before been economically feasible to produce crops because there was never enough rainfall to grow crops and “weeds.” All of a sudden the precipitation line that had protected the grass resources of our continent was pushed westward. In one generation it became profitable to grow farm crops by plowing up healthy grasslands, even in arid and semiarid landscapes.
GMO crops have been criticized for many reasons. Some call them Frankenstein plants, complete with the allusions of monster plants creeping out of laboratories to prey on unsuspecting life-forms. Others are concerned about GMOs’ ability to cross-pollinate with “normal” plants. Certainly they destroy biodiversity by creating sterile monocultures where nothing grows but the chosen GMO plant. They have been called the harbinger of a new silent spring, and many worry about their effect on the animals and humans consuming the grain that they produce. There are also legal questions about the ownership of seeds produced by GMOs — do they belong to the farmer who bought them or to the chemical companies that created them? It is hard to measure the validity of these concerns, but there is one concern that is undisputable — GMO farming threatens the biodiversity of our Great Plains by making possible the conversion of grasslands to croplands.
GMO technology makes profitable farming possible on the portion of our ranch called Phiney Flat and many other places on the Great Plains. It supplies an incentive for ranchers who still control healthy portions of the ancient buffalo kingdom to convert that grassland to cropland. Such conversion would render the return of meaningful numbers of buffalo impossible in the next many hundreds of years.
Though this will never happen to the portion of Phiney Flats that I control as long as I am alive, it is a temptation to which many will succumb. In addition to the windfall of government subsidies cash that one can claim for becoming a farmer, there is also a penalty for not making that deadly conversion. It is a little known fact that, in many Great Plains states, property taxes are calculated on the basis of a “best-use value,” not an “actual-use value.” What this means is that a ranch is taxed based on what the income could be if the land were plowed up and planted to GMO crops. Never mind the loss of biodiversity and fertility or the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. The tax differences are significant, and the margins in ranching are slim. There is no question that GMO agriculture is driving loss of grasslands, and those losses are not redeemable. This perfect storm of incentives and penalties is perhaps the greatest indictment against the use of genetically modified organisms. It could eventually be the final nail in the coffin of buffalo, and many other species, on the Great Plains. It is almost as if Big Agriculture and Big Government are working together, consciously or unconsciously, to ensure that buffalo, and the ecosystem that supported them, disappear from the face of Earth, forever.
It is certain that technology has and will continue to change the Great Plains. To paraphrase Richard Manning from his book Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, what was once one of the world’s most productive grazing lands, meaning the production of a high-quality, low-cost source of protein, was sacrificed so that a low-quality, high-input, subsidized source of protein could blanket much of the old buffalo kingdom. It is as if we not only must kill the buffalo but must destroy all that might remind us of them. The thought of a stray buffalo bull looking down from a ridgetop at a construction site where hard-hatted engineers are directing the construction of giant steel grain bins is untenable. What if one wandered into the midst of a legion of bulldozers rechanneling a streambed? Best to destroy all trace.
But nature is a stubborn mother. Remnants of most Great Plains species persist. The Lakotas are still here, and they believe that the buffalo will someday return with dignity. They are not alone.
Excerpted from Great Plains Bison by Dan O’Brien by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2017 by Dan O’Brien.