TALLGRASS PRAIRIE NATIONAL PRESERVE —A long-gone species returned home Friday not with a thunder of hooves, but with muffled snorts and a short gallop from muddy pen to grassy range.
A baker's dozen of bison had been plucked from a herd of 500 in South Dakota and trucked to east-central Kansas 10 days before.
Once here, they were crowded in a snug pen on the pasture that would be their new home. The time in tight quarters was intended to bond them as a new mini-herd and acclimate them to the sights, sounds and smells of the grassland around them.
Then in groups of threes and fours, they were set free in their new home.
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"This is probably the first time bison have been on this ground in 140 years," said Alan Pollom, the Kansas director of the Nature Conservancy.
Although the preserve is run by the National Park Service, much of the property remains in the conservancy's ownership. The nonprofit group paid about $50,000 to buy the 13 animals, ship them south from Wind Cave National Park and circle the grazing land with an electric wire and barbed wire to keep the bison from charging into nearby cattle pasture.
The bison work as sort of natural prairie tenderizers, trampling taller grasses to allow shorter varieties to bloom, bruising the ground in summer dust baths that turn to insect breeding grounds when the rains turn those depressions to puddles, and scattering their own special fertilizer.
"Their trampling and wallowing opens up the grass canopy," said John Blair, a Kansas State University grassland ecologist. He's director of the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research site near Manhattan, where another small herd has helped pound the landscape into a more natural state.
"If you compare the land with and without grazers," Blair said, "you find the grazers bring diversity" — and with that a heartier and more native environment.
There was a time when the ground shook under the bison thundering across the continent. Estimates of their numbers in North America run from 30 million to 70 million in the late 1500s.
Today the continent is home to roughly 450,000 bison, a little less than half of them in Canada. Most are destined for the dinner table. The U.S. slaughtered 70,000 last year, double what it had just five years before.
The mud-mottled bulls and cows turned out on the Tallgrass preserve were never destined for that. Their destiny is to grow and die in as wild an environment as the country has room for any more.
This group has 1,100 acres to itself — shared with hikers who will be able to walk the prairie pasture as early as Nov. 7.
The hope is for the bison to feed themselves this winter. Feeding on the tall bluegrass and Indian stemgrass here might mean they'll lose 15 percent of their weight by spring.
Preserve caretakers might feed them a few bales of hay over the winter to keep the weight on, and to coach them to come to the honk of a truck so two or three years from now they'll be easier to round up for health checks.
"It's going to be great to see them grow," said Wendy Lauritzen, the preserve's superintendent. "They're needed here."