Once on the open range west of Matfield Green, a turn to the north on M Road, followed by another turn west to 60 Road, will lead you to Cedar Creek, the ghost town of Wonsevu, and autumnal ditches filled with partridge pea.
Stop to admire the flowers or the rust-colored grasses sweeping over the hills, and a glint of light might catch your eye. From the road, it’s hard to determine the source. But this is open prairie, unfenced and accessible. Wade into the grasses and climb the hill, and you’ll discover a life-sized, perfectly detailed bison: a sculpture conveying all the strength and solidity of the iconic prairie animal.
Although the name of the sculptor remains a mystery, and I haven’t yet learned who commissioned the work, I like to imagine a rancher placing the bison on its hillside: perhaps as a tribute to early ranchers in the American West who helped to save the bison from extinction.
Not all of their names are well known. Frederick Dupree saved nine calves on his ranch near the Moreau River, in South Dakota. Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight built a herd in the Texas Panhandle. In the spring of 1873, Walking Coyote, a member of the Pend d’Oreille tribe, captured four buffalo calves while hunting near the Milk River in northern Montana, and by 1884 had grown his herd to thirteen head. South Dakota rancher Scottie Phillip and Charles Jones — the founder of Garden City, Kansas, and the first game warden at Yellowstone National Park — also rounded up remnant herds.
Still, despite these individual efforts, survival of the species remained uncertain until December 8, 1905, when a group of sixteen people, including Theodore Roosevelt, assembled in the Lion House of the New York Zoological Society and formed yet another society: one devoted to American bison.
The primary goal of the Society was to create a preserve where bison could be protected and their numbers increased. A South Dakota National Park known as Wind Cave seemed to meet their requirements; by 1911, a study by J.A. Loring indicated the park could sustain the animals. Stanley Bullock, the U.S. Marshall supervising Wind Cave at the time, agreed:
I do not think they could find a better location. There is plenty of water and shelter in the Park, and horses and cattle ranging there this winter are in better shape than any that I have seen elsewhere… the Park is an ideal location.
In a letter written on behalf of the New York Zoological Society, William Hornaday affirmed the gift that would become the nucleus of the Wind Cave herd:
The New York Zoological Society authorizes me to offer the American Bison Society a herd of ten buffaloes, consisting of males and females of various ages, to stock the Wind Cave National Bison Range, whenever it is established by Congress. I need hardly assure you that these will be animals of absolutely pure blood.
The Bison Society replied:
This gift is a most valuable one… It comes when Congress has under consideration the establishment of the Wind Cave National Game Preserve. The gift of this nucleus herd will be a strong argument with Congress for establishing the Game Preserve.
In the end, the Zoological Society increased the number of bison to fourteen: seven males and seven females. On November 24, 1913 the animals, individually crated in two steel train cars, set off by rail, arriving in South Dakota on November 28.
By the end of 1913, Secretary of Agriculture D. F. Houston wrote in his report to the American Bison Society:
The Government now has about 315 buffalo, distributed in six herds: the fifth and sixth having been established this year on the Niobrara Reservation, Nebraska, and the Wind Cave Park, South Dakota.
In this connection it is interesting to recall that the nucleus of the first herd, the one now in the National Zoological Park, was acquired twenty-five years ago through the late Eugene Blackford, and consisted of a pair of buffalo captured near Ogallala, Nebraska. Soon after, four others were presented by Dr. V.T. McGillicuddy, a public spirited citizen of Rapid City, South Dakota.
And so it happens that, after the lapse of a quarter of a century, buffalo [have returned to] each of the States from which the original herd was secured. The future of the species now seems assured.
Due to Wind Cave’s size and available forage, the park has been able to sustain a herd of about five hundred animals. To preserve the rare genetics of the herd, however, scientists recommended a total population of more than one thousand animals.
In order to reach this goal, Wind Cave entered into a partnership with the Nature Conservancy designed to create satellite herds composed solely of Wind Cave genetics: valuable in part because the bison contain so few cattle genes. These satellite herds currently exist at the Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch Prairie in northwest Missouri, Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve in Iowa, the Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois, and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas: just a few miles north of my sculpted hillside bison.
In October, 2015, additional bison from South Dakota’s Wind Cave herd increased the number of animals at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve to eighty animals, where a herd of seventy to one hundred bison is considered optimal.
When arrangements were being made to receive the most recent shipment of bison, Kristen Hase, Natural Resources Manager for the Preserve, said, “We have a truck at Wind Cave, and they are doing the roundup right now. What we get depends on how many animals they are able to round up.”
Hase’s caveat was appropriate, since rounding up bison never has been — and never will be — easy. When the nucleus of the Wind Cave herd was unloaded in South Dakota, it required a certain creativity:
By noon the unloading (from the train) was completed and the crates securely lashed or chained to wagons provided by citizens of Hot Springs. It was 7:00 PM when the caravan reached the park. The first animal took its release very calmly and disappeared into the darkness.
However, the unloading by the uncertain light of our lanterns and bonfire proved to be a more or less difficult task. Greatly to the surprise and disappointment of some of our spectators, we had a good deal of trouble in getting some of the bison out of their crates.
Fred Dille, a member of the U.S. Biological Survey, described the difficulties this way:
To suggest to a buffalo that he must back out of a crate by poking him in the head [is a technique that] will work with an elk but not a bison. Your actions are but a challenge to him, and he does not propose to give ground.
According to the Bison Society’s final report:
In several cases the operation was more like removing the crate from the animal than the animal from the crate. At last our task was over, and it was with something of a feeling of relief that we realized our trip had been brought to a successful conclusion.
When the most recent shipment of Wind Cave bison arrived in Kansas, they first were placed in small pens and pastures to help them adjust. Getting them to the pens after that, for veterinary care or culling, would be complicated by the fact that bison aren’t cattle, and behave rather differently. “The more you try to force them to do something they don’t want to do, the more they push back,” says Randy Miller, a Nebraska rancher who raises bison for meat.
Horses can’t be used, because a fast-moving bison could harm or even disembowel a horse. On the other hand, helicopters and large trucks, useful in other settings, might well frighten or stampede the herd. On a tour of Konza prairie three years ago, when I asked Chod Hedinger how they manage to herd their own bison into corrals, he laughed and said, “Candy, of course!”
Bison candy isn’t fudge, or taffy. Instead, pellet-sized range cubes, composed of alfalfa, grain, molasses, and binder, are dropped from a vehicle traveling toward the corrals. As cattlemen know, no ruminant on four hooves can pass up such a sweet treat, and bison are no exception. Once they’ve become accustomed to following the feed truck, they’ll simply eat their way into the corrals.
On the morning I left the Tallgrass Prairie, I saw the effectiveness of bison candy for myself.
During my stay at Matfield Station, the bison had been roaming the hills well beyond the range of my camera, but that morning I found them grazing near their pens. Even so, tall prairie grasses made a clear view difficult.
Unwilling to pass up my last, best opportunity for photos, I opened the car door, stepped up on the frame with one foot. and balanced myself against the door with the other. Focused on keeping the camera steady, I heard the approaching truck, but didn’t bother to look until it was next to me. When I turned, its driver leaned out the window and said, “Getting any good photos?”
“They’re not going to be the best,” I said,”but they’ll do.” “Well,” he said, “would you like to get closer?” I stepped down from my perch.”That would be great,” I said. “Is there a place where I could get a better view?” “Sure,” he said. “I’m heading out to the pasture now. Climb in, and you can ride along.”
Climb in, I did: noticing along the way that the old pickup had been outfitted with a mchanical feed hopper. When Gene explained that it was filled with range cubes, I knew we’d be doing what Chod described to me at Konza Prairie: taking a load of sweet treats out to the herd, bribing them to follow the truck.
As we bounced across the pasture, Gene turned on a siren that sounded for all the world like a Kansas tornado warning, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Laughing, he said, “First, we have to get their attention — let ’em know we’re out here.” Then, he gestured toward the horizon. “Look over there,” he said, “coming across the dam.” Turning, I spotted a herd of bison barreling straight toward us, as nimble and quick as horses.
“They do seem to know your truck,” I said. Gene grinned. “We’ll circle around and wait for stragglers, then start for the pens. I won’t start dropping feed until I’ve coaxed ’em along a bit. They’ve got to learn to follow to get the feed.”
Looking out the window, I pondered an especially large bison running alongside the truck. “I think this one’ll follow. He’s got a wild look in his eye, like he might be candy-crazed.”
Cruising a pasture in a pickup isn’t the best way to take photos, but eventually we came to a stop. Gene kept sounding the siren as the bison streamed in and surrounded the truck: mentioning in an off-handed way that it probably would be best if I didn’t get out. “Not to worry,” I said. “They’re beautiful, but I’m not about to try petting one.”
Still, with only two or three feet between us, it was possible to admire details I’d missed in the past: the variety in the color and texture of their fur; the sound of their feeding as they ripped grass from the ground; and their alert, responsive gaze.
There were bison who seemed to be best friends,
and delightful young calves.
All seemed impatient as they gathered around the truck, and we began the journey to the pens. They trotted along happily for a while, but began drifting off when no feed appeared. That’s when the hopper was activated, and the bison were rewarded.
while bison who already had taken their share of the treats licked their lips, and hoped for more.
Happy with how close we’d come to the pens, Gene grinned at a lone bison still begging at the window. So quickly I almost missed the gesture, he reached out and grabbed a fistful of hair from the shedding creature. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Here’s a souvenir for you, in case your photos don’t come out.”
As we turned the truck with its empty hopper toward the road and began retracing our course across the pasture, the bison showed no inclination to follow. No doubt experienced enough to know the treats were gone, they returned to their grazing, and seemed content.
Watching them as we pulled away, I felt a similar sense of contentment. The bison had grass, water, and sky. They had the comfort of the herd, a curving horizon to embrace them, and protectors willing to do what they could to help undo the damage of the past.
What more could a creature desire?