Bison are pretty tough. At our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and at many other sites in the upper Great Plains, bison make it through the winter without any supplementary feed. They just eat cured grasses, grow a thick coat, and plow through snow and ice as needed. Bison don’t need humans to help with calving, and they protect their babies very effectively from predators. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that animals like that would be completely unfazed by a little rain.
Yesterday, some of our Nebraska staff took a trip up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Loess Hills of Iowa. Land steward James Baker led us on a very scenic hike before a band of cold rainy weather moved in. We then piled into some trucks with James and Director of Stewardship Scott Moats and went to visit the resident bison herd. The bison were peacefully grazing as we drove up, despite the pouring rain. When we stopped, a small group came over to check us out. Here are a few photos of those rugged bison, who didn’t need to huddle in dry and heated pickups to stay comfortable.
P.S. In case you had any doubt about my nerd qualifications, here’s one more piece of evidence. As I was working up these photos (in the backseat of a truck heading back to Nebraska) yesterday, I was looking closely at the streaks of rain captured by my camera. Based on the size of a bison calf’s eye and the length of the rain streaks closest to those eyes, I estimated that my camera captured about an inch of raindrop fall during the 1/250 of a second the camera’s shutter was open. Now, I’d want to do some actual measuring of bison calves’ eyes to check this, but based on that rough estimation, those raindrops were falling about 250 inches per second. Now, if I convert that number to miles per hour, I get 14.2 mph. A quick online search found that raindrops are estimated to fall at about 20 mph. I was pretty close!! I mean, given that I don’t really know how big a bison eye is or how close those raindrop streaks were to that eye… (NERD)
Guest Post by Eliza Perry, one of our Hubbard Fellows. All photos are by Eliza.
Anne and I have been spending a lot of time with bison over the last four weeks, something neither of us ever thought we’d do. First, we went four hours northwest to TNC’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, our largest property in the state and home to two herds of bison. We were there to help with the roundup of the east bison herd. I didn’t grow up around livestock, so this event was really thrilling for me. Because they are herd animals, bison can get very aggressive just by being separated from the pack, leading to a lot of banging and even some blood. Corrals are designed to safely and efficiently move livestock to minimize their stress. The hope is that the less time they spend inside the corral, the less stressed and agitated they will become and the fewer injuries they will sustain. We didn’t know how to help at first, but soon got the hang of closing the heavy iron gates at just the right moment to allow a manageable number of animals to clamor through the corral system at one time. We must have done okay because we were invited back to a second round up.
Next we drove four hours northeast to visit TNC’s Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve, Iowa’s largest contiguous prairie, to see how another preserve operates and lend a hand for a few days. Emily Hohman, the preserve’s land steward, showed us around and taught us to winterize fire equipment, which will be important at home after we finish our fall burns. Emily is in charge of stewardship for all of western Iowa, including the management of Broken Kettle’s bison herd. We discussed the challenges of managing large preserves with limited staff in a primarily production-oriented setting, circumstances that we at Platte River Prairies are very familiar with. We also got to whip around in the loess hills on six-wheelers while herding cattle.
On our way back from Iowa we stopped by the Niobrara Valley Preserve again for a board meeting, this time without seeing any bison. But the next week we were back to round up the west herd for a few more days. We got to use the newer corral system, which has several hydraulically controlled gates for an even safer and more efficient sorting process. Because we had already learned the ropes (no pun intended) at the last roundup, Anne and I were able to jump right in.
The evening before the board meeting at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, the staff and trustees met up in the nearby town of Ainsworth for some dinner and socializing, which meant I got to drive through the Nebraska sandhills at sunset. My camera can’t capture how epic this landscape looked at this time of day. It’s nothing like any other place I’ve ever seen.
Back in June of this year, I went up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa for a meeting on prescribed fire. As we were starting a field tour, a group of us was walking from the parking lot to the hills when we spotted this tiny little turtle (about the size of a 50 cent piece). I hung back and followed it around with my camera for a few minutes before catching up with the group again.
Painted turtles are common but fascinating creatures with lots of interesting natural history trivia – especially related to temperature. First, the gender of turtles is determined by the temperature of the eggs in their underground nest. Males are produced in cooler temperatures, and females are produced in warmer temperatures. A second temperature-related fact is that painted turtles hatch out of their eggs in the fall, but remain underground through the winter and emerge in the spring, surviving temperatures down to at least 5 degrees F. They eat the shells they hatched out of and, apparently, get some nutrition from the surrounding soil minerals. Finally, the basking that painted turtles do in the sun not only helps them with thermoregulation but also activates enzyme production for digestion of their food.
This photo was taken in October of 2007 at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in Iowa. The sun was going down as the moon was coming up – always a magical time for photographers.
Moonrise over loess hill prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands – Iowa.
I had to use a long telophoto lens to get the moon to appear as large in the photo as it actually looked that evening. The technical trick was to get both the moon and the hillside in focus at the same time (the moon was quite a bit farther away than the hillside!).
The Broken Kettle Grasslands sit at the north end of Iowa’s Loess Hills – a great tallgrass prairie landscape. The Loess Hills of Iowa are a tremendous natural resource with some very nice prairie landscapes – along with plenty of threats, including woody plant encroachment and habitat fragmentation.
Interestingly, the Iowa’s Loess Hills get a lot more attention than Nebraska’s Loess Hills, which are 3 to 4 times (or more) the acreage. That lack of recognition is likely due to the fact that the Nebraska Loess Hills largely sit between Nebraska’s Sandhills and Platte River, both of which are world-renowned ecological landscapes. Nebraska’s hills are mixed-grass prairie, but have essentially the same soil type and topography as those in Iowa, along with some very nice prairie plant communities (in some places). They also suffer from the same threats as the Iowa Loess Hills – especially rapid expansion eastern red cedar trees. Even within Nebraska, few people are aware that there are Loess Hills in the state, let alone that those hills contain tremendous biological diversity.
I just returned from a trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in Iowa. Scott Moats, who has managed the preserve for 15 years, is one of my favorite people to work with. His ability to interact with people – especially his neighbors around the preserve – and his enthusiasm about his site and his work make him fun to be around. This week he’d organized a meeting of conservation professionals from around Iowa to talk about the ecology and implementation of prescribed fire. I enjoyed the chance to be a part of the group and learn from Iowans about fire – and prairies in general.
The Conservancy reintroduced bison to Broken Kettle in the fall of 2008, and I was able to be there as they came off the truck. Since then, I’ve tried to make it back up to visit them when I can. After our meeting on Thursday, we had some free time in the evening, so three other Conservancy employees and I struck out across the prairie on ATVs to find the bison.
Luck was with us. As we neared the gate to the bison pasture, the whole herd (or at least most of it) was standing right inside the gate. We watched and followed at a distance as they grazed and worked their way slowly up and down a couple of hills. I was hoping to get some photos, but the light was a little harsh – and then as the light started to get better (as the sun got lower) the bison moved so they were between me and the sun.
At one point, a small group of animals started grazing their way toward where our ATVs were parked. When they got close, they stopped grazing and wandered over to see us up close (I’m guessing). The four of us just sat quietly for the examination, and when they’d seen enough, they wandered off in the other direction.
I’d been photographing the bison with a long telephoto lens, but as they came closer, I switched to my wide-angle lens. The photo shown here was taken with that lens. It turned out to be the only keeper photo of the evening (tough light conditions to work with!). Right after the small group checked us out, the sun went behind a dark cloud and never reemerged.
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.
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.