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Osage County bison herd thrives on one of the last remaining tallgrass prairies in the world

Anna Pope
Gates in the tallgrass prairie preserve warn visitors of loose buffalo.

Signs warning of loose buffalo are on nearly every fence gate of the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County.

They’re necessary.

The 39,650 acres of land dotted with oilwell jacks in chest high grass is the world’s largest protected area of tallgrass prairie and is the home of hundreds of native species, including 1,800 bison. This week, the Nature Conservancy is celebrating 30 years of successful bison restoration on the preserve.

Three hundred bison were donated to the conservancy in 1993. Now, the herd has grown six times over and Tony Brown, the preserve’s manager, said they play a critical role in preserving the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

“Their disturbance through the bison wallows, and they're just hoof tramplings, it creates different microhabitats for different kinds of species,” Brown said. “It’s all positive. You know, if it’s native, it’s positive. Isn’t it?”

Today, there's only 4% of tallgrass prairie intact, making it the rarest and most endangered ecosystem in the world, according to the National Parks Service. Scientists estimate between 30 and 60 million bison once thrived on tallgrass prairies in the nation, but excessive hunting in the 19th century brought the species near extinction.

“This has always been tallgrass prairie, so it’s never been plowed,” Brown said. “So, I look at it as more of a not restoration, as sustaining what it is. The bison are part of it.”

The event comes on the heels of Ken Burn’s latest documentary, The American Buffalo, which explores the history and significance of buffalo.

Geoffery Standing Bear, Principal Chief of the Osage Nation, was there when the bison restoration project began at the preserve. He said knowing the bison population was reduced to dismal numbers is a sad story, but people have worked to bring them back.

“And the Osage Nation, we have just received some bison from the Bronx Zoo and our small herd is now about 250, and we’re growing,” Standing Bear said.

Bison are ingrained in many Indigenous cultures and are a symbol of resilience. Native populations relied on the bison to survive. Buffalo were in ceremonies and for food, shelter, clothing, tools and jewelry.

Standing Bear said buffalo play an important role in his community, and their presence has turned Osage County’s tallgrass prairie into a magical place.

“It was a wonderful experience seeing so many people supporting the return of the bison,” Standing Bear said. “It’s been over 100 years since they were here.”

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Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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