Native Sun News: Company raises buffalo with eye on traditions

The following story was written and reported by Ernestine Chasing Hawk. All content © Native Sun News.

A buffalo bull roaming the natural grasslands on the Cheyenne River Ranch near Badlands National Park belonging to Dan and Jill O’Brien.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA — Maynard Zane Brown’s job with Sustainable Harvest Alliance and Wild Idea Buffalo Company is more than just punching the clock for eight hours, it’s doing what his ancestors did for millennia, harvesting buffalo in sync with nature.

To his friends he’s known as Shane Brown. Working as a meat cutter for most of his life and spending time at the Rushmore Packing Plant in Rapid City he knows how stressful it is for buffalo to be treated like cattle.

“If they are raised like a cow, then they’re corned up and grained up for 180 days. Plus when they are grain fed they are run through a fixed packing plant. I worked there for a number of years and I see the stress on those animals, it’s in their eyes,” Brown said. They get crushed and they’re not handled humanely he said, “They put the hot shots to them. They run them up the chutes and into the kill box and those animals go plum crazy before they shoot them. You know that they’ve got adrenaline running through them, by the time they do kill them.”

After leaving the Pack, Brown went to work for his tribe’s buffalo program on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation where buffalo were raised as close to nature as possible. His tribe had purchased a portable slaughtering unit brought to America from Holland. But the unit was too cumbersome to move around in the field so it ended up being stationary, but served the tribes needs.

Then Brown met Dan O’Brien in 2006 while he was working at Western Meats on St. Patrick Street in Rapid City.

O’Brien, a wildlife biologist, award winning author and owner of the Cheyenne River Ranch had just begun a new venture called Sustainable Harvest Alliance that harvests buffalo in the field.

When O’Brien, who started out as a cattle rancher changed to buffalo about 15 years ago, he knew buffalo needed to be treated differently than cattle because “they are wild animals.”

“So we started thinking about how to show a little bit more respect for them. So we started harvesting them in the field and found out that it’s almost stress-free whereas other ways of harvesting them are always stressful for the buffalo,” O’Brien said.

After harvesting his own buffalo in the field for about five years, friends from Standing Rock, Pine Ridge and Mission approached him and said, “We like the way you do your animals. Why don’t you come and do that for our buffalo?”

He said he didn’t quite know how it could be done but it was a real honor to be asked. However his longtime friend Rocky Afraid of Hawk, also from Cheyenne River, came to him and convinced him of the need to harvest buffalo in the field for other people.

So he and his partner Jill O’Brien surfed the internet and found a man in Washington State who had made a portable truck, not for buffalo, but for sheep and pigs.

“So we went out to talk to him and found that he thought he could make one that would work for buffalo. Of course we didn’t have any money so we started a non-profit organization called Sustainable Harvest Alliance and some of the funding agencies gave us enough money to get it started,” he said.

But it was Jim Borglum, whose grandfather carved Mt. Rushmore who actually put the money up for the Sustainable Harvest Alliance truck which he rents to them at a reasonable rate.

“So it has been running now for almost five years and we harvest between four and 10 animals every week. We’ve worked on Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Crow Creek and Cheyenne River is interested in working with us. We’re hoping we can just go around and harvest these animals in as close to the native way as is possible in the 21st Century,” he said.

The response to this natural way of harvesting buffalo has been excellent and people come out and join in the harvest like they did in ancient times.

“We think that is better for everybody involved from the buffalo to the people. It’s just a really rewarding thing to do. Because it is something that is different, it’s not that difficult to do,” he said although they have overcome a lot of hurdles to get where they are today.

Each Wednesday, crew member Jerry Blanks drives the Sustainable Harvest truck to the field where the buffalo are to be harvested.

On the day Native Sun News caught up with the crew they were headed for the Cheyenne River Ranch near Badlands National Park.

Blanks, who had started a crock-pot full of buffalo meat at 4 a.m. for a noon barbeque in the field, is also the person who goes into the pasture to shoot the buffalo. He, along with state inspector Brian Bowers drove the specially equipped truck right in amongst the herd where he shot the first one of four to be harvested that day.

When asked if he was afraid to get so close to the buffalo, Blanks jokingly teased, “For Buffalo fences are just a suggestion.”

The buffalo was brought back and hoisted up into the semi truck where Brown and crew member Kevin Marshall, also a CRST member, quickly and skillfully dressed it out and readied it for processing. They were closely watched by the state inspector to insure that they closely followed the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) standards.

The buffalo were then transported back to Rapid City where they would be processed at Wild Idea Buffalo’s newly opened plant and they will be USDA-inspected and packaged. The plant is located at 1275 S. Valley Drive across from Loaf n Jug on Highway 44.

“This is a state inspected meat plant and we can do everything that any other plant anywhere can do. We can ship anywhere in the U.S.” Dan O’Brien said. “If any of the tribes or private Native buffalo producers are interested in doing it this way they should get a hold of us at Wild Idea Buffalo in Rapid City.” You may also contact them at www.wildideabuffalo.com

(Contact Ernestine Chasing Hawk at editor@nsweekly.com)

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