By Alyssa Nyberg, Nursery Manager and Outreach Coordinator, Kankakee Sands
We are all far, far, far too young to have seen bison roaming wild in Indiana. What a sight that must have been! About 200 years ago, herds of bison were here grazing, from the flats of northern Indiana to the hills of southern Indiana.
Great herds of bison, estimated at 60 million, once roamed the prairies of our nation. Historically, bison were found throughout Indiana and were an integral part of our grassland landscape. The last bison in Newton County was shot at Beaver Lake in 1824; the last bison in the state of Indiana was shot in Orange County in 1830.
Bison are North America’s largest land mammal. They are massive mammals. The males, or bulls, can be six feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 2000 pounds. Females, or cows, are roughly five feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 1200 pounds. Despite their size, they can run 35 miles per hour. On average, bison live 15 to 20 years. Females typically give birth to one calf per year. Calves are reddish brown in color and are affectionately called “cinnamons”. In April of 2017, the first bison calf was born at Kankakee Sands.
Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie restoration in Newton County, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting lands and waters in Indiana to preserve our natural heritage. The Conservancy’s goal at Kankakee Sands is to connect together three biologically diverse natural areas in Newton County: Conrad Station Savanna, Beaver Lake Nature Preserve, and Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area. To date, we have planted more than 6,800 acres of dry and wet prairie at Kankakee Sands using more than 600 species of native plants. With these natural areas now connected, there are more than 20,000 acres of contiguous habitat in Newton County for plants, insects, birds and mammals to traverse.
The movie Field of Dreams made famous the saying, “If you build it, they will come”, and for many animal species, that rule has held true at Kankakee Sands. When we made portions of Kankakee Sands wetter by removing ditches, the amphibians returned. As the native flowers, grasses and sedges began to establish, the small mammals and birds moved in. Once the small animals returned, the raptors and the larger mammals followed. But the bison was one mammal that was not going to return on its own.
So, in October of 2016, we brought a small herd of bison from a Nature Conservancy preserve in South Dakota to a 1,060-acre pasture at Kankakee Sands in Newton County. The bison were brought here for a very important reason: to help us manage the prairie, which is exactly what bison naturally do. Bison are herbivores that forage primarily on grasses and sedges. We anticipate that this simple action will have a multitude of effects. A greater number of wildflowers should grow, bloom and set seed when the grasses and sedges, which compete for light and space, are reduced. This diversity of wildflowers should attract a greater diversity of insects and animals.
The overall height of the vegetation will likely be reduced as bison graze, and this in turn will provide critical shortgrass habitat for such rare birds as the upland sandpiper.
Bison wallows, or shallow depressions, are created when the bison roll and twist in the earth. These wallows then fill with rainwater. We expect that amphibians and wildlife will be attracted to these prairie potholes. Bison churn up the soil with their powerful hooves. This disturbance on the soil may provide a spot for annual plants, such as the rare forked bluecurls, to germinate.
The bison are here for another reason, too: to remind us of our history. They remind us of the nation that we once were, wild and open and the land of possibility. They remind us of the many, many that have lived in this country before us, spending their lives on this same land that we do today. Bison remind us that we have a history, and that it is a history worth remembering and sharing with the next generation. We hope the bison at Kankakee Sands will inspire us all to learn more about and appreciate prairies and conservation, as well as our local and national history.
We are thrilled to have bison at Kankakee Sands. This has been years in the making and it has taken much partnership and cooperation to make it happen. We are grateful to everyone who has made the bison herd at Kankakee Sands a reality, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the donors who have made bison possible through their charitable donations, and our many volunteers who graciously give us their time and energy.
Though our work of bringing bison to Kankakee Sands is finished, for the prairies of Kankakee Sands, this is only the beginning. Let’s watch as the bison transform our prairies into vibrant, biologically diverse, beautiful landscapes. Come enjoy the beauty and the magic of Newton County and Kankakee Sands.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is 8,300 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. The Nature Conservancy is an international, membership-based non-profit organization. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.