Bison Are Roaming Free in Indiana for the First Time in 200 Years

February 10, 2019 at 4:16 pm

The Nature Conservancy is bringing bison back to Indiana to help restore the prairie

Once upon a time, prairie was the primary ecosystem in Indiana, but in the last 200 years, almost all of it has been plowed under for agriculture.

Today, less than 1 percent of original, native prairie remains.

The Nature Conservancy has been working to convert 7000 acres of row-crop farmland back into diverse prairie for the last 20 years.

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There are now over 750 species of plants and 250 species of butterflies on the newly restored chunk of prairie, called the Kankakee Sands Nature Preserve.

Most of the native plants and insects were able to find their way back “home” on their own. The bison needed a little assistance.

In October of 2016, the Nature Conservancy brought 23 bison onto the preserve from another preserve in South Dakota.

“They got off the truck and in about 5 hours, they were settled like they had never left,” Kankakee Sands site manager Ted Anchor says in the video below:

In 2017, ten calves were born and ten more were brought from South Dakota, making a total of 43 bison in Indiana.

They are the first pure-bred bison in the state in 200 years.

Though they are a treasure to the state in their own right, the Nature Conservancy brought them in for more than their magnificence.

Bison are an essential partner in prairie restoration. The grasslands need the bison as much as the bison need the grasslands.

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“When bison graze grass, it gives a competitive advantage to all the neighbors of that plant, such as native wildflowers,” Anchor explains.

They also keep down tree saplings, which stop the prairie from becoming forest, and cut furrows in the dirt with their hooves, which helps with seed dispersal and planting.

“It’s really about restoring the interactions between the plants and animals for the sake of the ecosystem,” Anchor says.

At one time, 60 million bison roamed free in the United States. Their population dwindled to less than 1000 by the year 1889 and is now up to about half a million thanks to conservation efforts.