Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Have you ever wondered "where the buffalo roam"?  Today we found out!  We spent several hours on a delightful driving tour of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve just north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma.  In 1989 The Nature Conservancy purchased the 29,000 acre Barnard Ranch not many miles south of the Kansas state line. The Conservancy is dedicated to the preservation of unique natural habitats and has expanded the Preserve area during its 22 years of management.

This is the view that greeted the pioneers traveling west by covered wagon during the early 1800s.  One hundred forty-two million acres of tallgrass prairie stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico spanning parts of 14 states in the mid-section of the nation. Today, less than 10% of that prairie area remains in its natural state, uncultivated and undeveloped.
The Conservancy has carefully researched good management practices for the tallgrass prairie area.  Three crucial elements to maintaining the health of the prairie are favorable climate, regular controlled burning, and bison grazing.  A herd of 300 bison was re-located into the Preserve in 1993.  It has now grown to a community of 2700 bison.  They do their part in maintaining the prairie.
Bison are natural grass feeders so their grazing helps control the heighth and density of the prairie grasses.
A herd of 2700 bison eats a LOT of grass.  They roam freely around their protected area of the Preserve, not in the least intimidated by the cars, people and cameras that are often focused upon them.
Their needs are simple: grass, water and space to roam and reproduce.  They are so well cared for that they think they own the Preserve.  Twice we had to stop our truck and wait while large numbers of the shaggy brown beasts lumbered slowly across the road in front of us!
The climate has not been kind to either the prairie or the bison this year.  The severe drought has stunted the growth of the grasses on which the bison feed.
The drought has also necessitated a state-wide burn ban, which even prevents the controlled burns scheduled by The Nature Conservancy four times each year.  Centuries ago the native peoples observed that when lightning strikes set the prairie on fire, the grasses flourished with new growth and the herds of bison increased.  To this day, good prairie management includes regular controlled burns to char away the old growth so that new growth below it can flourish.  Regular, prescribed burns also are an effective way to keep fast-growing trees and shrubs from taking over the grasslands.
Lack of rain and absence of prairie burnings may cause some of the resident bison, such as this cow and her calf, to go hungry this winter.
The patriarchs of the herd kept a wary eye upon us as we traveled through their prairie home.
They tried to look casual and uninterested in the humans who had invaded their territorty,
But those eyes watched every move we made.  Bison are big animals, some taller than 6 1/2 feet at the shoulders and an adult male can weigh 2000 pounds.  They can run faster than a human being and can jump 6 feet in any direction.  We did our best not to upset them while we were among them!  We stayed in our truck and behaved ourselves.
This warning stare seemed to say, "You've stayed long enough on our prairie and taken too many pictures.  It's time for you to go back where you belong, in the land of the humans.  We're glad you came, but it's time for you to go."  We didn't argue.
Leaving the tallgrass prairie behind, we marveled at the wonderful sense of space, serenity, and beauty all around us from the tallgrass to the clouds in the bright blue sky.  What an exciting and wonderful world!