A Missing Piece that is Too Big to Miss!


By Joseph Kurtz

(Joseph Kurtz began his six-month seasonal position at Kankakee Sands in May of this year, and has been enjoying both working and learning out in the prairie ever since.  Joe is originally from Pennsylvania.  He hopes to bring the skills he’s learned out in the prairie back to the big city back home.)

There’s a lot to see out your window as you pass Kankakee Sands.  At this time of year, the herbaceous plants are flowering in shades of yellow and purple, dotted amongst an array of drying grasses.  But for all there is to see, there’s one big thing that’s missing.  And when I say big, I mean BIG.  The six feet tall, 2000 pounds kind of big!  The American Bison, the largest land mammal in North America, used to call Newton County home. (You can still see bison at Broken Wagon Bison Farm, located in Porter County, along the BTB trail.)

If you think Indiana is a little too far east for this species, think again.  The American bison was quite the traveler.  Its historic habitat ranged from California to New York and as far south as Florida.  Today, the surviving bison herds lie to our west.  However, this majestic species is slowly making its eastern homecoming.  With the help of restoration ecologists, small herds of pure-bred bison are making their way into prairie preserves.  The Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch Preserve, located in northwest Missouri, is the latest project to reintroduce this species.  The Dunn Ranch brought in 37 bison in 2011 and added 30 more this year.

Besides being an environmental tourist attraction, the American bison at the Dunn Ranch are providing a very important role in maintaining the balance within the prairie ecosystem.  Because the Bison’s diet consists of mainly grasses and sedges, its grazing patterns promote the growth of competing flowering plants such as sunflowers and milkweeds.  Furthermore, certain species evolved alongside the bison and prefer the landscape established by their grazing behavior.  For instance the songbird Bobolink prefers to nest in fields that are grazed short in the spring but get taller as the season progresses.  Therefor the meandering nature of Bison herds provide excellent habitat for Bobolinks.

The patterns established by Bison can be replicated by other bovine, since many of these species have similar grazing patterns and appetites.  The herd of cattle in Unit G at Kankakee Sands provide many of the same ecological benefits as bison.

If you are interested in seeing the American bison in its native habitat, look on The Nature Conservancy’s website.  There are a number preserves only a few states away that support bison herds.  While you are visiting the preserves and viewing the bison, try to imagine them in your own back yard.  Not so long ago, they certainly were right outside your very own backdoor.

The Kankakee Sands Efroymson Family Prairie Restoration is a 7,800 acre prairie and savanna restoration project of The Nature Conservancy located in Newton County, Indiana.  The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands office is located on US 41 between CR 400N and CR 250N. The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. The prairies and savannas of Kankakee Sands are always open for visitation. An informational kiosk is located out front of the office with information about the project, the trails, and the prairie ecosystem.  For more information about the project, visit our website at www.nature.org/Indiana, or call 219-285-2184.



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