Bison Will Soon Roam Again at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Bison cow and calf at Wind Cave National Park. NPS photo.

They got only 13, not the 20 they had hoped for, but the folks at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve are mighty pleased with the bakers dozen of bison that the preserve recently acquired. Rounded up at Wind Cave National Park not long ago, the young and hefty animals – around 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years old and weighing up to 760 pounds -- were lab-tested, certified disease-free, and cattle-trucked to Tallgrass just last week. They’re in holding pens now, getting acclimated before being released into an 1,100-acre fenced pasture that’s been rested or stocked with steers at a much reduced stocking rate for several years.

Since the preserve's tour bus follows a gravel road that runs right through the bison pasture, these super-charismatic animals (who doesn’t enjoy watching buffalo?) are destined to become one of the preserve’s principal attractions. The Park Service hopes the bison herd will entice more people to visit the preserve. which is located near Strong City, Kansas, about 120 miles southwest of Kansas City. With just 20,075 recreational visits logged in all of 2008, the preserve and area businesses would welcome more tourists.

Increased visitor interest aside, the bison’s arrival restores an important element of biodiversity and historical character to a national park that was established to protect one of the last remaining large tracts of tallgrass prairie in America as well as relics of the ranching industry that has thrived in the Flint Hills region for generations. Bison by the thousands roamed the Flint Hills prairies and bottomlands before ranchers, farmers, and market hunters killed or ran off nearly all of them by the late 1800s. Small herds of bison now graze on private land in the area, but Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one place you’d surely expect to find bison, hasn’t had any since the preserve opened its gates to the public. Now the bisons’ too-long absence has ended.

Here is what the preserve’s website has to say about the bison restocking program and the long wait for the animals’ return:

The preserve is committed to this project and we ask the public to be patient, because anything worth doing is worth doing well. To hurriedly place bison on the landscape simply to satisfy public interest without fully formulating a plan would be negligent, both to the bison and the resource. Approximating the herd size without a completed bison management plan is impossible. Important decisions must be made first, before bison are reintroduced to the preserve landscape. The resource and the health of the bison lie in the balance.

The preserve's General Management Plan, which dates to 2000, calls for restocking genetically pure, disease-free animals. For all practical purposes that means the initial batch of bison has to come from the large wild herd (500+ animals) at the 44-square mile Wind Cave National Park. Yellowstone genetically pure bison won’t do, since many are infected with brucellosis, and even careful screening for the disease won’t make them acceptable to nervous ranchers in the Tallgrass vicinity. Wind Cave’s bison are not only genetically pure (no cattle genes), but also free of brucellosis.

The Nature Conservancy, which owns nearly all of the land in the preserve and manages it in cooperation with the National Park Service, had wanted to buy 20 bison for Tallgrass, including about ten young cows. Per the preserve's Bison Management Plan/Environmental Assessment (2009), which was prepared in cooperation with TNC, the Park Service felt that a 50-50 mix of males and females would be preferable. While a 50-50 mix doesn't generate herd growth as rapidly as a female-heavy mix would, it is more consistent with the natural gender distribution and associated behaviors that the Park Service wants for the preserve's bison herd.

Tallgrass ended up getting just 13 bison -- six cows and seven bulls. The problem is, capturing bison can sometimes be a very tricky business at Wind Cave. The helicopter crew and others tasked with capturing the bison found this year's roundup pretty tough going, and the Tallgrass order ended up being only partially filled.

With only six cows to start with, it’ll take probably somewhat longer than expected to get to the 73 animal units worth of bison (roughly 100 animals) that is thought to be the carrying capacity of the preserve’s bison pasture. That’s just a rough estimate. The herd will be careful monitored, of course, and there will be regular roundups beginning in about three years. Tweaking will be needed to keep herd size in balance with the habitat.

Postscript: The Nature Conservancy and the Park Service do not intend to replace cattle with bison at Tallgrass. One of the preserve’s main purposes is to commemorate the Flint Hills historic ranching industry, and grazing with historic cattle breeds is part of that history. Furthermore, it’s not clear that bison will be better for the land than the cattle already grazing on a seasonal basis within the preserve. Where the health of the land is concerned, what seems more important is how much grazing of any kind is permitted where and when. At just 17 square miles, the preserve is too small to accommodate both bison and cattle in large numbers.

Comments

This preserve has always been on my "Places to go" list even before the buffalo got there. Hope to be there in 2010. Congrats on the Bison!!!

I'm with you, Anon. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is way up there on my own personal list and I'm trying to figure out how I can manage a trip during one of two seasons -- either early summer (flowering peak) or fall (when some of the grass tops out at eight feet or more). I've already spent time in Kansas during mid-summer, including a memorably-hot July at Fort Riley, and I must admit that I'm not keen to return to that part of the country at that time of year.

It's on my list, too. Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge is right down the road from the Preserve, on the other side of Emporia. The problem is it's a really boring 12 hour drive from my house to Emporia.

You call that boring, Kirby? When it comes to pegging out the bore-o-meter, nothing tops the 600-mile drive on the Interstate from Denver to Kansas City. I once had to tell a busload of tourists that there are lots of things to see on that stretch of interstate. As I recall, all but three soon fell fast asleep.

As a former employee at Tallgrass Prairie, this is very exciting news and long overdue. It is a beautiful place to visit and well worth the visit. The flowers are beautiful in early summer, but my favorite time of year there is in the fall. And as a Kansan, I have to say the Flint Hills of Kansas, where Tallgrass Prairie is located is very beautiful-especially in late spring/early summer and the grass has just turned green-not all of Kansas is boring!! Congratulations, Tallgrass!

Check out the county courthouse near the preserve, too--quite spiffy, especially for a smaller, rural community.

Established in 1856, the the little town of Cottonwood Falls (pop. 860) is the county seat of Chase County (pop. maybe 3,000). Cottonwood Falls is located about five miles south of the preserve, and it's well worth seeing if you're in the vicinity. In addition to the three-story limestone French Second Empire courthouse that Anon speaks so highly of, there's the restored Grand Central Hotel and some small shops along Broadway, the town’s three-block long main street.

I once had to tell a busload of tourists that there are lots of things to see on that stretch of interstate.

So, you're saying we shouldn't believe anything you say?

I'm not going to go there.

As a former Wind Cave employee, I'm quite proud of what our little park is doing with bison conservation. See also this year's Wind Cave bison reintroduction to a Mexican Nature Conservancy reserve: http://www.nps.gov/wica/parknews/10292009pr.htm

Tallgrass Prairie is definitely worth the visit. It's a beautiful park in a beautiful area!

We've been following that story closely, RangerChris. Watch for us to post an article on it soon. The bison, BTW, are scheduled to leave WICa for Mexico by 11:00 a.m. Monday.

praise the Lord that is great news that bison are now on the preserve. I will try and get there some day and see them, that would be neat to see

Charlie, I'm excited about the Tallgrass bison too. Tallgrass is on my "must see" list, and I hope to get there next year. Knowing that the preserve now has bison gives that prospect extra appeal.

Bob--

When I visited Tallgrass Prairie in the early 1990s, there were still bison wallows from the previous century.

If you have flexibility in your schedule, try to go in September to catch the visitor day at Konza Prairie LTER, less than an hour north of Tallgrass Prairie NP on 177. They've got a couple of decades of research on various fire & bison grazing regimes. The comparison between the 2 sites would be wonderful (TNC owns much of each), and the tours they run that day at Konza should be very informative about the current & future of Tallgrass Prairie.

Thanks for the suggestions, tomp. I visited the Konza Prairie website and was very impressed. It's definitely on my radar now. Shouldn't be too difficult to incorporate a Konza Prairie visit into my Tallgrass Prairie plans.

Hi Bob,

Just thought you'd be interested in my latest film project for PBS, "Return to PrairyErth" with William Least Heat-Moon. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve will be featured.

Stay updated on film production at:

http://www.youtube.com/newtruthfilms
or
http://newtruthfilms.blogspot.com/

Best,
John O'Hara
Director

Thanks for the headsup, John. You've got a very exciting project underway, and I look forward to seeing this film when you've finally got it in the can. BTW, I'm been a huge fan of William Least Heat-Moon for 30 years now, and although Blue Highways remains my favorite, PrairyErth is a close second. Chase County, Kansas, and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve are high on my "must see list."