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.