MOROCCO — There is the wonder new visitors to Kankakee Sands feel when they see a herd of bison traveling across fields in Newton County and then there is the wonder experienced by the golden red calves born in these fields.
"A couple of times I've seen them, the calves are zipping around, back and forth between a couple of different cows. Chasing each other around," remarks Tony Capizzo, Kankakee Sands Land Steward on a recent warm day at the site along U.S. 41 in Morocco. "Occasionally you'll see a calf get up and take off in a direction and mom kind of panics, stands and takes off after the calf.
"It's just like everything else, everything is new and wonderful to them and they are realizing just what their world looks like," he said.
Several months after the bison, commonly known as buffalo, arrived at The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands last October, the warm weather has seen several births.
Known as red dogs and cinnamons because of the color of their coats, the calves weigh about 50 to 60 pounds when born but bulk up quickly. They also have been a bit elusive to see as they stick close to their mothers and away from prying eyes.
"The cow calf group has become a lot more reclusive, hiding behind some of the shrub walls, having a little bit of privacy," Capizzo said.
The bulls, kicked out of the family group, have been easier to spot.
"I'll see the bulls, I think six or seven of them, wandering around kind of forlornly," he said.
The elusiveness may explain why Capizzo and some others at Kankakee Sands have not seen as many visitors as they originally expected with the birth of the calves. He expects they may become less elusive as the year wears on.
At least one Girl Scout troop, however, was able to see some of new additions to Kankakee Sands when it visited the office one day this spring.
"The bison just happened to be right there and the calves were running around and being cute," remembered Capizzo.
Overall, Kankakee Sands has seen a large uptick in visitation since the arrival of the 16 bison cows and seven bulls last October. Many of the visitors have been school groups from elementary schools to colleges.
Capizzo said a lot of people from the local community in Newton County as well as out-of-towners have come out to see the bison. Some of the volunteers started a bison docent program and the volunteer guides have been providing visitors with education on the buffalo and well as the best locations to spot them. New permanent signs are being put up at the main bison viewing area and a new trail is being added for visitors to access an overlook.
During one Sunday afternoon, Capizzo said 150 vehicles visited the site during a four-hour window.
"There's a lot of people coming out and learning about what we do," he said. "They come out to see bison and they can learn a lot more about what we do in the area around us."
The bison were primarily brought to Kankakee Sands to provide prairie management. The Nature Conservancy has planted more than 600 different native plant species in 6,700 acres of the 8,300-acre site it manages in Northwest Indiana.
The bison's diet consists primarily of the prairie grasses and they aid in making sure the acres they roam at the Elfroymson Restoration has the shorter grasses that are needed by a variety of other plants and animals, such as the upland sandpiper. Wildflowers also are expected to benefit from the bison's preference for the grasses.
"The structure is what some of the birds are really looking at," Capizzo said. "How much tall grass is there, how much low grass. And what we want is that really patchy mosaic, a really diverse group of habitats."
Both a plant monitoring program and bird monitoring program have been established to track the impact of the bison at the prairie.
"For me it's been really cool to get out in the pasture and see what decisions they're making, what they're choosing to eat, where they're spending their time," he said.
Ten more bison are expected to be brought to the Kankakee Sands this fall, Capizzo said. With the births of additional calves, Capizzo anticipates they will reach 60 bison by 2019. He said the plan is to hold at that number for a couple of years to see how the prairie responds before making a decision on what is the ideal number of bison to have at the site.
It's been really fun," Capizzo said of the experience with the bison to date. "Knock on wood, things have been going very, very smooth."