Read full journal: Resilience on the Prairie Edge: The 777 Buffalo Ranch (2010)
In 1972, Ray Hillenbrand and his wife Rita bought the 777 Ranch, a prairie property located between the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Mimi Hillenbrand, daughter of Ray and Rita, has been involved in the land and bison management as well as marketing aspects of the business from an early age. In 1991 she took her first training in Holistic Management, or HRM as it was known at the time, and has continued her training, and frequently travels to grasslands worldwide in her studies of wildlife and wild places. Mimi is passionate about these animals and their place on this land. In fact, the health of the land is a driving force for her management objectives and permeates all aspects of the business. Under Holistic Management, low production grasses are being replaced by deep-rooted native species like Green Needlegrass. Native herbs such as Echinacea, prized for its medicinal qualities, also grow in profusion.
Each year Mimi helps create a detailed grazing plan for the bison herd that moves between 25 different pastures during the growing and dormant season. In 1992, in conjunction with planned grazing, ecosystem monitoring transects were established across the ranch and data are collected annually. The data analysis shows a decrease in bare ground and erosion with concurrent increases in species complexity and diversity. The land is improving – becoming more resilient to climate extremes that are “normal” for this landscape where the edge of the prairie meets the black hills. In 2003, Mimi took over ownership and full time management of the 777 Buffalo Ranch. Mimi spent increased amounts of time in the field observing animal behavior and planning, but her most challenging task was to make the business profitable. She began selling more of the marketable animals and aligning forage production to stocking rate. This increased income and began the process of getting the ranch out of debt. Currently, the ranch grazes about 1,700 head of bison over roughly 28,000 acres and markets both meat and live animals.
The health and resilience of the 777 Buffalo Ranch is directly related to the abundance and diversity of its plant and animal species. On the ranch, plant diversity is increasing having many species of native cool and warm season grasses, flowering forbs, shrubs and trees. Deer, elk, antelope, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, badgers, prairie dogs, porcupines, ground squirrels and many other animals share the range with the bison as they have for thousands of years. The ranch is also home to a variety of birds and raptors such as golden and bald eagles, red tail hawks, ferruginous hawks, prairie falcons and many others. Rare grassland birds such as the Baird’s sparrow and Long-billed curlew are found in abundance. Another good measure of the balance now being sustained on the ranch is the increased effectiveness of the water cycle. There are virtually no signs of erosion present, except in the badland areas where soil type prevents plant growth. With nearly all the moisture that falls captured in the soil, the ranch is becoming more resistant to the effects of drought. During the last five years of below average rainfall, the ranch did not have to destock.