Photos of the Week – October 24, 2019

Last Saturday morning, I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, helping with an event. I woke up early and decided to venture out to catch the sunrise. A small group of bison was slowly grazing their way across the prairie, so I parked my truck in a place that I hoped would intersect with their movement.

The morning was nearly silent apart from the gentle grunts of the bison. As the horizon brightened, a few of them crested the hill in front of me, silhouetted against the soft glow. As the sun finally crested the hill, I snapped away with my camera as the bison calmly walked past.

After a little while, the bison had moved beyond me so I slowly pulled the truck away and circled around in front of them again. Once more, they gradually made their way past the truck – a little further away this time – and I managed some more photos of them against the rising sun. After a while, I glanced at the clock and was surprised to see that I’d been with the bison for nearly an hour. It was time for my breakfast, so I left them to theirs and headed back down the hill and back to headquarters.

My job grants me extraordinary access to bison and the prairies they graze in, and I’m deeply grateful for that. As a result, I’ve spent enough time around bison to feel pretty comfortable in their presence (while obviously maintaining a very healthy respect for their size, athleticism and unpredictability). While I no longer feel compelled stop to admire them every time we pass each other in the prairie, I don’t take them for granted either. I hope I never do.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – October 24, 2019

  1. I first read this on my phone but moved to my Imac to see your beautiful photos larger. Wow. These made my day! Often, where ever I am i like to watch the sun rise and/or set. The quality of light.. so much LIFE in silhouette.

  2. Chris (and others),

    Love your bison photos — and how you got them.

    Very much would like thoughts on the following.

    Ok, here’s the question(s). Of course, bison were and are in Nebraska prairies. Surely some were over in Iowa, too, in presettlement times. Here’s the questions:

    Before Europeans changed things (let’s say, in 1491), how far east did bison range, and why?

    We know that the last wild bison in Ohio was shot in our year of statehood, in 1803, along the Ohio River in the extreme southern part of the state. At that time, bison were in the state. But diagnostically, of the many thousands of archeological sites examined in Ohio, bones of deer and elk are common. But the bones (or other artifacts) of the bison are archeologically absent in Ohio. Might this be because the species didn’t migrate into the state until Native Americans gained the use of both horses and firearms to hunt them; when the bison would have then found safety in the forests to the east, along the Ohio?

    Now, tell me. What do your bison eat in winter? My perception is that the prairie tallgrasses, big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass, simply provide no nutrition to ungulates in the winter. Proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates are translocated to roots and rhizomes for the winter, to power spring re-growth.

    But you have High Plains short grasses, such as buffalo grass (pretty good name) do you not? And those species have sufficient proteins and lipids in the seeds which cling to the plant all winter (and are eaten by bison then), correct?

    I don’t know what some 18th or 19th century bison in Ohio were eating in frigid January or February; at least here in rather cold northern Ohio. In the Ohio River region, farther to the south, some cool-season grasses may have remained green in winter, providing a bit of nutrition. But in the northern two-thirds of the state, I’ve never found any native herbaceous plants that bison would have eaten or thrived on in winter. The deer and elk, of course, amply browsed woodies on the borders of the prairies. Bison? Out here in the east, don’t know what they could have eaten in winter.

    The bison, understandably, is a prairie icon. Some Ohio park districts and natural areas consider bringing in some bison to graze in their fenced tallgrass prairies. But personally, I contend that we Ohioans can’t claim the bison as an authentic prairie animal here — even if there were a few until 1803 in the Ohio River valley.

    Everyone’s thoughts?

    • Wow, there are a lot of questions here. Let me answer a few, at least.

      Maybe I’ll start with the last one first. My understanding (which is limited) is that shorter grasses (gramas and such) do indeed cure out with more remaining protein etc. than a lot of taller grasses, and that helped maintain the heart of the historic bison range in the more western prairies and high plains. That said, a lot of sedges remain green throughout much of the winter and there are other options for bison to stay healthy over winter. They can lose quite a bit of weight and still make it through the winter, so even sub-par forage might be sufficient if they come into the winter in good condition. I think we’re learning more about that now with bison herds being re-established further and further east into the tallgrass ecoregions.

      There is some very interesting work done by biologists and historians in Wisconsin that supports a theory that bison were fairly rare in that area for a period of time prior to contact with Europeans and the subsequent decline of native peoples because of smallpox and other issues. Bison then seemed to increase in abundance for a (relatively) short period of time between that decline in indigenous human populations and the later increase in European settlers. That said, if you look further back, the history is more complicated, and there were a lot of large herbivores that co-existed with grasslands, including the precursor to our modern bison, Bison antiquus. As a result, I think most of the plant species in those eastern prairies evolved under large herbivore grazing of various kinds, then were probably protected from those grazers for a while before being re-exposed for a fairly significant period in the late 1600’s and 1700’s. That’s how I understand the story. I assume Ohio’s story is fairly similar to that of Wisconsin.

      Plains bison, or American bison, were found as far east and south as Florida, but I don’t have a lot of information about relative numbers throughout the eastern parts of North America. I assume they took advantage of pockets of grasslands, as well as savannas, glades, and open woodlands throughout that eastern range.

  3. What a wonderful experience, beautifully rendered. I especially enjoyed the last photo, with the sun rising above that ‘bison horizon.’

    A souvenir of my first trip to the Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas is sitting on a shelf here at home: a good-sized hank of buffalo fur, grabbed for me by the fellow who had taken me along while he enticed the bison toward their pens. If my memory holds, I’ll never forget that experience.


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