The sounds of bison

Bison photo by Chris Helzer.
Bison photo by Chris Helzer.

By Alyssa Nyberg

But what will it sound like? I can hardly wait to find out. In the fall of 2016, our Nature Conservancy staff will be bringing a small herd of 12 to 20 bison to Kankakee Sands, and I am ever so curious as to what the prairie will sound like when the bison arrive.

Bison (Bison bison) are North America’s largest land mammal. They are massive, brown, hairy mammals. The males, or bulls, can be six feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 2,000 lbs. Females, or cows, are roughly five feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 1,200 lbs. Bison typically live 20 to 40 years. Both males and females have horns and shoulder humps.

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 ecosystems. The last bison in our area was shot at Beaver Lake in 1824; the last bison in the state of Indiana was shot in French Lick in 1830.

The landscape is certain to look different after the bison arrive. There will be fencing, an observation area, and the large, dark bison on the horizon. The bison will be restricted to a portion of our Kankakee Sands ground, likely less than 15% of our total 8,300 acres. But on these 1,000 acres, we hope to answer big questions. The biggest question is, how will the ecosystem change? We will be looking at how the vegetation changes from before the bison arrive to after grazing. We will also be looking at bird behavioral changes and the butterfly response to the presence of the bison.

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 when bison graze, and this in turn will provide critical shortgrass habitat for such rare birds as the upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda).

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 (Trichostema dichotomum), to germinate.

Our findings on the effects of bison on the restorations of Kankakee Sands will be used to guide our management practices at Kankakee Sands. The findings will also be shared with other scientists within The Nature Conservancy and other organizations studying the effects of bison on grassland ecosystems. The Kankakee Sands bison herd will be the fourteenth herd managed by The Nature Conservancy. Currently, approximately 5,800 bison roam Nature Conservancy preserves in Illinois, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Chihuahua, Mexico.

The state of Indiana was founded 200 years ago. To celebrate Indiana’s bicentennial, it only seems fitting that bison be introduced to Kankakee Sands in this year. It will truly be a “bison”tennial!

So, just what will Kankakee Sands sound like in 2017? I imagine a greater diversity of birds singing over the prairie restorations, more insects buzzing about, and a grander display of wildflowers in bloom. But, only time, and bison, will tell.


The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. The Nature Conservancy in an international, non-profit organization. For more information about Kankakee Sands, click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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