Kevin Costner's Academy Award-winning movie ''Dances With Wolves'' owes much of its success to 86-year-old Roy Houck.

Houck is not an actor. Nor is he a producer, director, screen writer or film distributor. In fact, until Costner showed up two years ago, watching television was the closest Houck ever got to Hollywood.

But without him, ''Dances With Wolves'' might never have seen the light of the silver screen.

Roy Houck dances with bison.

You remember bison. Those were the brown, shaggy, four-legged extras in Costner's film. Roy Houck owns them. In fact, this former South Dakota lieutenant governor owns the rolling native prairies over which Costner and his Sioux friends chased and shot bison.

If not for Houck, Hollywood would have had a tough time re-creating the bison-prairie ecosystem that once covered millions of square miles in America's heartland, but today is almost extinct.

Ironically, Houck came to preserve the native grasslands on his 60,000-acre central South Dakota ranch because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed his former cattle ranch in the Missouri River valley. Massive Oahe Dam near Pierre, S.D., flooded Houck's old ranch in the early 1960s, forcing him to relocate in a beautiful but less-favorable upland site where water was scarce and the open hills provided no protection from winter storms.

Houck was running registered Hereford cattle and a small novelty herd of native bison on his new ranch in 1966 when a winter snowstorm blew in, killing most of the cattle.

''The buffalo just played in the snow drifts that killed the cattle,'' Houck said. ''That's when I decided this ranch was better suited to bison than cattle.''

And, from the looks of the prairie, awash in lush green grass and brilliant wildflowers last June, bison have been better suited to the ranch than cattle might have been.

Though no comprehensive studies have been done on the long-term effects of cattle grazing versus native bison grazing on prairie ecosystems, common sense would suggest native ungulates are better suited to native climate and habitat.

For instance, Houck reports that bison more efficiently convert native vegetation to meat. During drought they are able to subsist on year-old grass. Knowing that, Houck rotates his 3,000- to 4,000 animal herd through 30 separate pastures, always maintaining a year's supply of grass on the ground. This provides a buffer against overgrazing during drought.

In order to spread grazing pressure evenly throughout pastures, Houck has built 200 ponds on his ranch.

''A buffalo doesn't have to go more than a half-mile to water anywhere on this ranch,'' Houck proudly proclaims.

All that grass and water also provides habitat for native prairie wildlife. Everything from pronghorn antelope to chestnut-collared longspurs thrives on the ranch.

Walk into the grass and birds sing, flutter and hop everywhere.

Red fox pups romp in the matted grass by their burrow.

Coyotes howl from the ridge tops.

Bass, bluegills, mallards and teal splash in the ponds.

Mule deer bounce from plum thickets, and sharp-tailed grouse dance on their traditional mating grounds.

About the only species missing are grizzlies and Costner's wolves.

Bison have proved to be less work to manage than cattle.

They thrive on cured, standing grass during winter, plowing through snow with their broad foreheads to reach it. That means there is no hay to cut and stack each summer, no supplemental feed cakes to dispense on bitter winter days. Only three people are needed to run the ranch year-round.

Disease is practically unknown in Houck's bison. The only doctoring they require is a brucellosis vaccine mandated by the state. Heifers calve without incident, unlike cattle which often need veterinarian assistance. The calf crop is 90 percent or better every year, which bolsters the ranch herd by 900 to 1,000 animals.

Of course, Houck isn't raising bison for therapeutic reasons. They pay the taxes and grocery bills, same as cattle would. To maintain a healthy herd and grassland, he sells and butchers 800 to 1,000 two-year olds annually.

As did the Sioux in 1800, Houck uses nearly every part of the bison carcass. Meat is sold to supermarkets, hides have a market in Wisconsin, and skulls command a good price as decorations.

A few breeding bulls live with the main breeding herd until they are four years old. ''The older they get, the meaner they get,'' Houck explained. ''A four-year old bull's meat is still edible if you fatten him up.''

Houck learned a few things about moviemaking while ''Dances With Wolves'' was filming on his ranch. For instance, in order to simulate bison racing with arrows stuck in their sides, two Hollywood ''stunt'' bison were trucked to the ranch, fitted with fake arrows, and turned loose for the hunting scenes.

The main breeding herd of 2,000 was driven past the cameras and ''hunters'' with pickup trucks.

''We ran them down there four days in a row,'' Houck said.

''On the fifth they wouldn't go. They got wise. The hardest part was keeping the pickups out of the picture.''

Costner's dancing wolf in the movie camped in Houck's ranch yard with its trainers. ''They exercised those wolves in the yard just like dogs.''

As a result of the movie, tourists have been finding their way to the Houck ranch this summer. They want to see the buffalo and the ramshackle Fort Sedgewick where Costner met his wolf and Sioux. A better reason to tour the ranch might be to see how man can cooperate with nature to the profit of both.


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