“It always make me happy to see a dung beetle.”
That may seem like an unusual thing for someone to say, but for Mimi Hillenbrand ’80, the owner of the 777 Bison Ranch outside of Rapid City, S.D., dung beetles mean the conservation plan the ranch operates under is thriving. “When you see a dung beetle, you know you have healthy, healthy ranch land.”
Hillenbrand spoke to Culver Girls Academy students Wednesday afternoon, touching on points from conservation, not giving up on your dreams, and working hard to prove yourself – even in a male-dominated profession like ranching. You have to be “independent, resilient and stick up for yourself.”
But it means putting in the work, too. When she asks someone to fix a broken fence or sit on a tractor for 20 hours, it is because she has already done it. She has done every job there is on the ranch. She has been charged, hit and run over by bison that can weigh up to 3,000 pounds.
“It’s been the coolest 30 years of my life,” she said. Since taking over the operation from her father, Ray Hillenbrand ’52, she and the crew of three men have molded and implemented a holistic management model for both the animals and the land. They have stopped baling hay, only feeding it when they bring the herd of 2,000 in for its annual inspection. Otherwise, the animals feed on the natural prairie grasses using a planned grazing program. And it is the management of those grasslands that has brought back the diversity of wildlife, including the dung beetles.
I have never felt inferior or slighted. I’m living proof that you can do it.
And, those efforts have not gone unnoticed. The 777 bison were featured in Kevin Costner’s Academy Award-winning film Dances with Wolves. The ranch of 26,000 acres has been written about in The New York Times, USA Today and National Geographic. The ranch’s practices have also been highlighted in a video by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. Hillenbrand showed that video, which includes the beetles, to the students.
She readily admits to not being the best student while at Culver or in college. But she stuck it out and now has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology and a master’s degree in agricultural sciences (range management). It took her years to finish college, Hillenbrand said, “spending most of the time on academic probation.”
And it has taken years to get where is she is today. “It’s been a really great journey. I can’t stress it enough, just follow your dreams and you’ll get there. It may take years, but you’ll get there.”
Recognition for her efforts includes being board member of the National Bison Association and serving on several other boards and committees. Plus, she purchased a cattle and sheep ranch in the Patagonia region of Chile, fulfilling another dream. Because she has paid her dues, “I have never felt inferior or slighted,” even though she is working in a man’s world on two continents. “I’m living proof that you can do it.”
One of Hillenbrand’s biggest regrets is not taking full advantage of her time at Culver. What she learned at Culver has played “a huge role” in her life. But it took time to realize it. Culver supplied her with the “big tools” for life; but like a lot of tools, they stayed in the tool box until they were needed.
“Culver opened the world to me,” Hillenbrand added. It opened her eyes to new cultures and people. And, along with her parents, Culver taught her to follow her dreams and passions. It taught her that independence and resiliency she needed, along with responsibility. “It made me the person I am today.”
She reminded the girls that it was important to follow what is most important to them. That is the secret to a fulfilling life.
“Live your truth. Be yourself. Live your passion. And nothing can stop you.”