KANKAKEE SANDS — The cold December wind whips across the Indiana prairie where several bison are gathered not far from a county road in Newton County.
The bison, commonly called buffalo, are uniquely designed to withstand these freezing temperatures with five times as many hair follicles as a domestic cow.
"Snow can fall on a bison and it doesn't melt because they are so insulated," says Ted Anchor, site manager at The Nature Conservancy's 8,300-acre Kankakee Sands in Northwest Indiana.
The bison's massive head acts as a plow to push snow out of the way so it can get to the prairie grass that they have been brought to the site to help control.
"We've spent the last 20 years building these prairies and now we've brought the bison here because we know they were here originally," Anchor said.
The Nature Conservancy has planted more than 600 different native plant species in 6,700 acres of the land it manages at Kankakee Sands. The bison's diet consists primarily of the prairie grasses and their presence aids in making sure the area they patrol at the Efroymson Restoration has shorter grasses that are needed by a variety of other plants and animals, such as the upland sandpiper, who like the bison has declined in population as a result of hunting and loss of habitat. Wildflowers are also expected to benefit from the bison's preference for the grasses.
In 1800, it was estimated there were 40 million bison, according to the National Park Service. By 1900, there were less than a thousand left in North America. The majority of the 40 million animals were killed in a 45-year period, beginning in 1830.
The animal's range at one time stretched from Mexico into Alaska, including Indiana, although their history in the state may be unknown by many.
"You can't believe how many Hoosiers have asked me: "Were they even native to the state?' " said Anchor, during a recent interview at the Kankakee Sands headquarters. Bison, he notes, are even part of the state seal of Indiana.
Anchor said his research shows the last wild bison in Indiana was shot in 1830 outside of French Lick.
"The last record I can find in the immediate area was just north of this site in 1824," he said.
"So bison were here. They were in the prairie landscape. There's good records there," Anchor said.
On October 15, 2016, the bison returned to the area as part of The Nature Conservancy's efforts to restore the prairie and wetlands in the area. They came from The Nature Conservancy's Lame Johnny Creek Ranch in South Dakota, which in turn acquired its bison from the Wind Cave National Park in that state. The Kankakee Sands herd is one of 13 that the Nature Conservancy maintains on about 130,000 acres of land.
The 23 bison at Kankakee Sands are located within a 1,060 area section of the restored prairie. Eventually, Anchor said the herd is anticipated to grow to between 50 and 75 animals. The figure is based on computer models that were run on what is needed to maintain the short grass prairie section of the conservation area. Some of the bison are already pregnant and Anchor anticipates the herd reaching its ideal size in about two years.
"This really isn't about bison," said Anchor. "It's really about prairie management. It's really about the ecosystem, the prairie as a natural community."
The bison, however, have been a magnet for visitors to the Kankakee Sands area, drawing sightseers from not just the Region but other parts of the world.
"I can't even begin to tell you how much more it is. It's a lot more. Many, many times more than it was in the past," said Anchor.
Crown Point resident Rick Katz and his wife, Judy, were among those who have viewed the bison at the site, which is about a 45-minute trip from their home.
He said despite the bison being there only a short time they already "seem right at home" and praised the staff for their preparation for the animals' re-entry into the area.
"What's exciting to me is it's a ripple effect," said Katz of the bison's impact.
Katz has been going to Kankakee Sands for a couple of years to enjoy the flora and fauna such as the northern harriers and short-eared owls.
"When I went down there and saw the owls I was hooked," he said.
About 30 miles south of Schererville on U.S. 41, a sign on the west side of the road with an image of a bison, directs travelers to the viewing area. The headquarters just south of the turn also has a kiosk containing information about the area.
"Our goal is to have a self-guided experience," said Anchor, although he asks educators bringing groups of students to the site to contact them ahead of time. Contact information and more information about Kankakee Sands and the bison can be found at nature.org/kankakeesands.
The site has set aside an acre for parking, which can accommodate buses. Anchor guesses there may be as many as 300 to 400 people paying a visit on a busy day. In addition to trying to catch a glimpse of the bison, visitors can also enjoy the rest of one of the largest prairie recreations in the United States. Three trails are available for people to use, although they are not allowed to enter the bison area.
There are some other places in the state and Region where bison are located, but the ones at Kankakee Sands are not there for meat production. Anchor said the staff want the bison to act as natural as possible, including sparring and breaking off into bachelor groups. At the same time, Anchor notes they also are not considered wild animals.
"They are considered cattle in the state of Indiana," said Anchor and have to have ear tags attached. Although not required, the staff at the conservation area also vaccinate the animals.
"We want the animals to have a good life," Anchor said.
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