Bison once thundered across the North American plains by the millions. But they were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century for their hides. Today, their numbers are growing again, thanks in part to the important role they can play in land restoration.
The 429-hectare Kankakee Sands Nature Reserve is a sea of tall dried grass, with bits of spring green filling in here and there, but it once was Beaver Lake, the largest body of water in Indiana. Pioneers drained it for farmland in the 19th century. While the Indiana chapter of the Nature Conservancy can’t bring back the lake, it can restore the prairie.
And that’s where the bison come in.
Doing what bison do
This spring, a dozen or more fuzzy bison calves, notable for their orange hue and tiny stature, will gambol across the landscape.
That’s good news, says Ted Anchor, the program manager for this Nature Conservancy project, because although they are very young, they and their herd are responsible for fixing a very old problem: more than 100 years of environmental damage. “By creating this large-scale restoration project, we’ve been able to harbor all those species that were just barely hanging on.”
The Indiana Chapter of the Nature Conservancy has been working for 20 years to restore the prairie at Kankakee Sands. Late last year, they took the final step, bringing in 23 bison, including 16 pregnant cows. The Conservancy now owns 13 herds, in preserves from Mexico to North Dakota.
“Bison are a really easy way to get short grass prairie,” Anchor explains. “Just by living and doing what bison do which is eat grasses and make little bison, they create the short grass prairie for us.”
Unlike domestic animals, the wild herd basically takes care of itself. The only thing Conservancy members do is make sure there’s enough water on the land and provide salt licks.
While farmed bison are raised for meat, these animals exist solely for environmental management. In addition to grazing on prairie grasses, which allows wildflowers to grow and provides habitat for rare birds, the bison wallow. The depressions they create fill with rainwater, which attracts amphibians and other small animals.
The animals are also a tourist attraction, bringing new sources of revenue to the community. Some visitors return again and again.
It’s expected that the Kankakee Sands herd will eventually grow to between 55 and 75 animals, and return the landscape to resemble what it was when herds numbering in the thousands roamed here.