Above all else, autumn on the prairie reveals the beauty of her grasses, and I’d come to Kansas as much for those tall, variously-colored grasses as for the spare, clean horizon, the solitude, or the vast rivers of stars cascading through the nights.
Still, as I paged through the book of photographs lying next to the cash register at the Tallgrass Prairie Visitors’ Center, I paused at a striking portrait of a single buffalo. Seeing my interest, the enthusiasm of the young woman standing next to me became palpable and infectious. “Isn’t he handsome?” she said. “I don’t have anything against the bald eagle. It’s a good symbol for America, and I suppose I’m glad it was chosen over the wild turkey. But the buffalo have permeated our culture in a way the eagle just can’t match.”
I’d never considered the buffalo as a rival to the eagle for our national symbol, but the thought gave me pause. “That’s true,” I said. “No one passed a resolution saying we should respect the buffalo, but they’re everywhere. They’re even on the Kansas quarter.”
Clearly, she knew her coins.”That’s right,” she said, “and they’re on the one for North Dakota, too. Do you know there was a nickel with a buffalo on it?” I did know. When my coin-collecting father began to encourage my interest in his hobby, the first coin he taught me to look for was the buffalo nickel. Minted from 1913-1938, it was scarce enough to make the hunt interesting, and yet common enough to guarantee a child success.
“Buffalo, New York was named after Buffalo Creek,” she said with a slight smile. When I replied that Houston was founded on Buffalo Bayou, a now-restored waterway that courses through the city, she grinned, and the game was on. Before we’d exhausted our collective memory, we’d called to mind buffalo grass, Buffalo Springfield, buffalo wings, the experience of getting “buffaloed”, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Buffalo Gals, who danced by the light of the moon.
At the time, I didn’t know that Buffalo Bayou’s original name was Cibolo Creek — cíbolo being a Spanish word for buffalo — or that the town of Cibolo, Texas, Fort Cibolo or an assortment of other Cibolo Creeks in the state had connections to the mighty creature. No matter. We were enjoying the associations at hand.
Listening to our banter, the Ranger behind the counter smiled. “It’s good you’re so interested in buffalo,” she said. “But if you’re heading out to the Windmill Pasture, be sure and keep your curiosity at a distance. There’s nothing romantic about being chased by a bison.”
As it turned out, my hikes through pastures and prairie were free of confrontation or catastrophe. A steady wind, the movement of shifting cloud-shadows across the hills and the soft susurration of the grasses were my only companions.
Late one afternoon, I traveled to the bottomlands of the preserve to spend time following the Fox Creek trail. Approximately five hundred acres of smooth brome fields in the Fox Creek riparian area are being restored to native vegetation through invasive plant removal, periodic burning, and reseeding projects.
Native trees — black walnut, hackberry, sycamore and cottonwood — line the banks of the creek, while switchgrass, big and little bluestem, Indian grass, Eastern gamagrass and sideoats grama luxuriate in the sunny open areas.
It was in the bottomland that I came upon my first “buffalo” — not a creature, but a plant. Buffalo gourds (Cucurbita foetidissima) are members of the cucumber family, and apparently received their name because, in times of drought, buffalo would eat them for the water they contained. They’re also known as “stinking gourds”, and crushing the leaves or fruit isn’t at all recommended.
In any event, these gourds were the only “buffalo” I encountered on the Tallgrass Prairie. For the real thing, I was going to have to head north in order to meet with Chod Hedinger, a fine photographer, a prairie enthusiast, and a docent at the Konza Prairie Biological Station. When a friend put us in contact with one another, Chod suggested he might be able to introduce me to some bison. I was looking forward to the experience.
Owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University, Konza Prairie is operated as a field research station by the KSU Division of Biology. Its three-fold mission includes long-term ecological research, education, and prairie conservation. (More technical information can be found on the Konza Prairie Biological Station website, as well as as a site dedicated to Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)).
Because of its status as a research facility, public access to Konza is limited, although hiking trails and other activities are available. As a docent, Chod was able to provide a more in-depth look at the prairie itself, even as he shared stories of on-going research projects, prairie burns and the twice-yearly bison round-ups that help to make Konza so valuable and so fascinating.
When we met in mid-October, the prairie was beautiful — fading, but still colorful. Sumac, rough-leaved dogwood and honey locust covered the hills and followed the meanders. Wild turkey skittered into the grasses, while milkweed fluff and seed cases from prairie primrose rolled before the wind.
Here and there, research plots dotted the landscape. Fenced, tagged, shaded or watered, they hinted at the dedication of researchers engaged in long-term efforts. Selections from a non-technical summary of the work done at Konza hint at its complexity.
The KPBS long-term prescribed fire management plan, and research on fire effects and other aspects of tallgrass prairie were initiated in 1972…
In 1980… a more comprehensive long-term research program to investigate patterns and controls of productivity, plant and animal population and community dynamics, soil processes and nutrient cycling, surface and groundwater, as well as expanded studies of fire management regimes [was initiated].
Bison and cattle grazing treatments were added in 1992, expanding the research program to include various aspects of grazing ecology and management. Long-term studies were expanded in the 1990s to include experimental manipulations of precipitation patterns (irrigation plots and rainout shelters), to study responses of native rangelands to climatic variability, and precipitation patterns associated with global change climate model predictions for the central U.S.
In the midst of all this high-powered science, I couldn’t help but smile when Chod pointed out this “milk jug.” It’s a rain gauge, fortified for protection against wind, curious critters and other threats to accurate measurement.
At the time of my visit to Konza, the fall bison roundup had begun. Twice each year, the herd is brought into corrals for health and pregnancy checks, the ear-tagging and weighing of new calves, and the selection of animals to be culled.
Animals chosen for culling may be young, or older and less vigorous. Their selection is meant to simulate the removal of animals from a herd becaue of natural predation. Occasionally, healthy males may be removed to maintain herd balance. Culled animals are tested for brucellosis, then sold for breeding at auction, by sealed bid and private sale.
Calves receive ear tags at the fall roundup when they are about six months old. The numbered and color-coded tags indicate the age of the animal, its origin, and its affiliation to other members of the herd.
Tag colors designate the decade of birth. White tags represent the years 1990 to 1999, yellow tags mark animals born from 2000 to 2009, and orange tags indicate animals born in 2010 or later. The first number on the tag is the year of birth. The following two numbers are the individual’s ID. In the photo below, the mama was born in 2003 and her identifying number is 89. Her calf, still without an ear tag, probably is around six months of age, and will receive an orange tag beginning with “13”.
When I asked Chod how they managed to herd the bison into the corral, he laughed and said, “Candy, of course!”
Horses aren’t used because a fast-moving bison could harm or even disembowel a horse. On the other hand, helicopters and really big trucks aren’t satisfactory because of the possibility of frightening or stampeding the buffalo. Instead, pellet-sized range cubes consisting of 16-20% protein from alfalfa and grain with a binder such as molasses are dropped from a vehicle traveling toward the corrals. What ruminant could pass up such a sweet treat? The bison simply eat their way into the corrals.
Even with the bison corralled, evidence of their life spreads across the prairie. Like deer, they create their own trails through the grasses, and occasional wallows appear.
Typically found in areas that are sandy or dusty, wallows also occur where wet conditions prevail. Wet or dry, wallows provide the animals with protection from biting insects by coating their fur with dust or mud as they roll. In spring, wallowing helps to detach their winter coat. In summer, wet wallows help to lower body temperature.
Once the buffalo have moved on, insects, rodents, and even small animals may take up residence in a wallow, burrowing into the earth or nesting there.
The compacted soil of a wallow also serves to collect rainwater. More than a few settlers’ wagon trains survived crossing the prairie because of water provided by wallows. Occasionally, larger wallows even were used as swimming holes by hot, dusty cowboys.
One thing hasn’t changed. Seeds carried on the bisons’ fur still fall into the wallows and sprout there. This bit of snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), visible at the bottom of the photo above, is flourishing at the edge of its wallow. It may not be the most attractive garden setting, but the snow-on-the-mountain doesn’t seem to mind.
After a day filled with corrals, research plots, expansive views and Chod’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic commentary, I was left with several souvenirs of the Konza Prairie — stories and photographs, more plant names than I could remember, a turkey feather, a prairie primrose seed case.
The only thing missing was a physical memento of the bison. For that, I would have to wait…
(to be continued)