Photo by Brent T. Wheat
The Nature Conservancy is now oversees 50 pure-bred bison on the 1600-acre restored Kankakee Sands prairie in Newton County, Indiana.
Photo by Brent T. Wheat The Nature Conservancy is now oversees 50 pure-bred bison on the 1600-acre restored Kankakee Sands prairie in Newton County, Indiana.
“Uh oh, we’ve got a problem,” I said to my shotgun rider Don Cranfill while slowing down. “Buffalo Jam.” He nodded sagely and turned down the radio.
In case you were confused, Buffalo Jam isn’t a sweet condiment that you smear on toast, nor is it the name of the latest up-and-coming Allman Brothers tribute band. It was in fact traffic congestion caused by bison.
That is something you might experience in South Dakota but for Indiana, a bison-caused traffic tie-up probably hasn’t happened since Andrew Jackson was sitting in the White House and the Native Americans were still wondering why they were being pushed out of a state named in their honor.
However, in the middle of extremely rural Newton County, we ran smack into several cars sitting in the roadway hoping for a chance to peak at Indiana’s first “wild” buffalo herd.
In spite of Indiana state seal that features a leaping bison, the Hoosier state hasn’t been host to any buffalo roaming for nearly 200 years. Now thanks to the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands preserve, 23 bison are presiding over one of the largest prairie restoration efforts in the entire United States.
While the bison aren’t truly wild, they are pretty much on their own as they roam an 1100-acre restored prairie that is only fenced to prevent the enormous animals from crushing someone’s Toyota on nearby U.S. 41. However, if you can ignore the barbed wire and the occasional passing truck on the highway, it’s not too difficult to see ghosts of the past as you look out on the awe-inspiring landscape.
Kankakee Sands is probably one of the greatest Indiana wild areas you’ve never heard of. Begun in 1996, the preserve is located along U.S. 41 north of Willow Slough State Fish and Wildlife Area in a region that was once part of Beaver Lake, an enormous marsh along the Kankakee River that was bordered by prairies and on higher ground, oak savanna.
The preserve has grown to 7800 acres and the former farmland has been restored to a condition that early Hoosier pioneers would immediately recognize. Along with Willow Slough and several properties just across the Illinois border, the entire area is an amazing natural landscape that seems to spread from horizon to horizon.
The next step in the prairie-building process was to introduce bison in the ecosystem, something the Nature Conservancy has done at other properties it owns. In 2016 the first animals, obtained from a pure-bred wild herd at Wind Cave National Park, were released. With births over the last two years, the herd is now 50 animals strong.
Stopping at the Project Office, we talked to Kankakee Sands site manager Ted Anchor who stays busy not only running the area but talking to the news media. In our few minutes together, we asked him why they went to the all the trouble necessary to bring the lumbering, uncooperative beasts back to their native lands. I wasn’t referring to journalists.
“Bison at Kankakee Sands are basically used as a management tool,” he said. “Bison were part of the landscape historically and we’ve been planting prairie here for 20 years so this was the next thing to continue on with that restoration process.”
Because prairies thrive on disturbances such as fire and grazing, Anchor noted the animals are a good part of the overall process of building a healthy prairie. “Bison are big grazers, there is nothing magical about it,” he pointed out. “The easiest way to do that (rejuvenate the prairie grasses and plants) is with native grazers, so why not bring in the bison?” he asked.
The Nature Conservancy has done an outstanding job of preparing for the influx of visitation the bison have already brought to the area. “We’ve developed a real nice viewing area,” Anchor said, “that was (formerly) Bogus Island in the middle of Beaver Lake. Today you can get up on that island and we’ve got a parking, a portable toilet, a couple of trails and signs. You’re almost guaranteed to see them (the bison).”
The Kankakee Sands project office is located on U.S. 41 just north of the intersection with State Road 14. The bison viewing area is located directly west of the office, off County Road 400 West. From the office you’ll need to circle around the bison prairie on paved roads to reach the viewing area. The north end of the bison prairie is bordered by County Road 400 North; along that road you will see a prominent rise where the bison like to lounge.
Should the herd is hanging around there, just make sure you pull completely off the road if you stop to for a viewing. You’d hate to be the first Indiana resident in recorded history who got a traffic citation because of buffalo.
Brent Wheat is a familiar face to Montgomery County readers. His weekly outdoor column, “Out in the Open,” now appears in The Paper of Montgomery County. He can be reached at editor@wildindiana.com.