Photo of the Week – April 15, 2011

What is it about bison that stirs up people’s imagination?

Whatever it is, it was in full force in October 2008 when the brand new bison herd rolled off the truck at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwestern Iowa.  I was fortunate to be on hand for the event, and it was a treat to see the bison, but also to see the excitement of the people gathered around to welcome them.  As the bison milled around the corral, getting used to their new home, everyone watching was doing the same thing – imagining what they would look like when they were eventually released into the hills just to the east.  In addition, I’m absolutely sure that everyone there was thinking about what it must have been like hundreds of years earlier when seeing bison in the same hills would have been exciting, but not particularly surprising.  We’re very fortunate that we can not only conjure up images from the past, but that we can also envision a future for the American bison – a species that could easily have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.

A small group of bison, including the first crop of calves, at the Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Iowa Loess Hills - May 2009.

The above photo was taken in May of 2009 – the spring after the bison were brought to Broken Kettle, and not long after the first calves were born.  I spent an evening and morning following the bison around their new home, making sure to keep my distance to avoid making them nervous.  (No one wants a nervous bison.)  I hope to make it back up to visit them soon.

The herd at the Broken Kettle Grasslands has now grown from 28 to 51.  The long-term goal is to grow the herd to about 250 animals.  If you’re interested, you can click here to read more about the bison at the Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands and the plans for their future.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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4 Responses to Photo of the Week – April 15, 2011

  1. Suzanne Tuttle says:

    Chris, did the original animals come from Wind Cave in 2008? In the interview with Scott Moats he mentions bringing them in from South Dakota.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Do you know, is it true that most bison today have some cattle genes in their makeup? When I worked on a grassland in Saskatchewan I remember hearing several people claim that there are very few “pure” bison herds remaining.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Rebecca – you are correct. When the bison herds were nearly gone, many of the last remaining animals were gathered up by a few ranchers who probably saved the species. However, they were also interested in capturing the genetics of the bison and using them to improve cattle genetics, so there was a lot of interbreeding. As a result, the majority of today’s bison have some degree of cattle genetics in them. Actually, they might ALL have some degree of genetics, we don’t really have the ability to test completely yet. A few herds have not shown any cattle genetics yet, but that doesn’t mean that better testing won’t discover some. There is (as you might imagine) considerable discussion about what, if anything, those cattle genes mean for conservation of the species.

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