Their big heads and large brown bodies stood out against the grass as rulers of the landscape, even on a cloudy, gray day.
Bison, America’s national mammal, a throwback animal to a wilder and different time in the younger years of the country, clustered in groups of five or even a dozen.
Merely a few minutes gazing upon the seemingly confident beasts that can grow to 6 feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 2,000 pounds serve as a reminder why they have played such an iconic and symbolic role in the United States for so long.
Most astounding is the passing thought that bison, better known in common vernacular as buffalo, exist in the state of Indiana. And for those whose thoughts dwell longer on the topic, it is remarkable bison escaped the fate of the passenger pigeon and mastodon, avoiding extinction.
Somehow. What was once an egregious crime against a species in the interests of political expediency turned into one of the greatest conservation efforts in scientific history.
“It is really amazing how close they came to extinction,” said Chip Sutton, an Indiana Nature Conservancy marketing manager.
Yet they live on, roaming in protected wildlands like Yellowstone National Park, in private herds or on ranches, these days in some number in all 50 states.
For all of Indiana’s industrialization, disappearance of prairie land, agricultural and big-city development, from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne, from Gary to Evansville, it is possible to visit and see bison in the flesh just 175 miles north of Seymour today.
Indiana bison restoration
Indiana’s herd is young. As part of a widespread Nature Conservancy project of restoration, a herd of 23 bison was moved to Kankakee Sands on 1,000-plus acres in October 2016.
The image of bison in the United States is pretty much rooted in the vast numbers of 40 million or more spread across the western prairies, of the spiritual and religious connections between the animals and Native American tribes, and the late 18th century business of aggressive hunting to kill as many bison as possible and turn hides and body parts into manufactured goods.
There are currently 92 or so bison living here, a population figure that is “a moving target,” Sutton said, depending on the birth rate and counts made in periodic roundups.
These Indiana bison originated in South Dakota and like so many Americans moved to a new state seeking a better life. Or that decision was made for them by conservationists.
“It was an exciting time five years ago,” Sutton said when the Indiana site was chosen for a herd. “It definitely was their historical range.”
While indeed the modernization of Indiana dates back much earlier than the settling of the West, bison did populate the Midwestern landscape. Early explorers and travelers reported sightings of bison in Indiana in the 1600s and 1700s.
Nature Conservancy research indicated a lone bison was identified near the Kankakee location in 1824, and it was shot, perhaps the beginning of its end in the Hoosier State. The bison was no longer an Indiana resident by 1830.
Those who came upon the vast herds of bison in the West, stretching across the horizon in uncountable multitudes but in estimates of millions, it was unimaginable to think such majestic and powerful animals could disappear.
Yet as a byproduct of the U.S. government’s policy to control and force Native tribes onto reservations, the cavalry was deployed with the mission of helping to destroy the buffalo.
The animal was an important source of food and spiritual symbolism to the American Indian, respected, appreciated and relied on for survival and mental and physical sustenance.
Coinciding with the national push for westward expansion, of settlers hauling families from the East and Midwest across the Plains and Rocky Mountains, was the recognition and of the value of buffalo parts to businessmen.
Native Americans ate the meat for food, sewed the hides into clothing and shaped the horns and bones into tools. Concurrently, the would-be farmers took over much land for growing and troops of hunters killed massive numbers of animals and transported bison parts by railroad to factories. The same bones Natives used to make survival tools were used in women’s corsets.
The commercial incentive was strong, and during the winter of 1872-73, some 1.5 million bison were shipped eastward. There are famous photographs of bison horns stacked skyward at rail stations awaiting shipment.
Worse for the bison, the desire for the dollar dovetailed with the government’s goal of rounding up and forcing Natives onto reservations. General Nelson Miles bluntly elucidated the outlook: “This might seem like cruelty and wasteful extravagance, but the buffalo, like the Indian, stood in the way of civilization and in the path of progress, and the decree had gone forth that they must both give way.”
The cynical approach of mass slaughter led to a near elimination of buffalo in the United States. It was said by 1880, only 100 remained in the wild. In 1901, a survey in Yellowstone National Park accounted for just 23 bison within the park’s boundaries.
It had only recently snowed at Kankakee Sands, though most of it was melting. The office and program were closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly until July 5.
The Sands themselves total about 10,000 acres, property acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 1996. Much of the restoration revolves around native plant species and a seed nursery.
Bison are part of the big picture. There are two fenced pastures. There is no desire to chase wayward animals onto local highways. The north pasture has around 350 acres, the south pasture has 700 acres and the animals are rotated between locations.
“Twice a year,” said Garrett Litwhiler, a conservation technician, “usually in August and January or February.”
There are never any escapees.
“Our fence is considered pretty robust,” he said. “I’ve never actually seen them push on the fence.”
Just as well. The fencing is 5 feet tall, and there is electric wiring that carries 10,000 volts.
The herd is counted and its health calculated by weigh-ins, measurements and other testing as well as monitored for numbers. Attention is paid to the total of breeding animals so the herd can be maintained.
“It allows us to preserve those genetics,” project director Trevor Edmonson said.
Even though the Indiana herd is going on five years in residence, Edmonson said many people are still surprised to hear they live in this out of the way place not far removed from an interstate between Indianapolis and Chicago.
“They say, ‘I didn’t know we had bison in Indiana,'” Edmonson said.
Bison are more associated with the West.
“Absolutely. No doubt. But historically, they were in the eastern half of the United States,” he said.
Buffalo are basically all brown except for babies, whose skin coloration is more reddish-orange until they begin growing. The most distinctive feature of adult bison is their enormous head compared to humans, almost spell-binding to the gaze.
Bison have fairly placid personalities. They like to roll in the dust. They stand around chewing. They drop down on their haunches and survey the scene. They are capable of running 40 mph but do not charge people or take off at a full sprint unless provoked or suspecting danger, especially to their young.
The Indiana bison munch on a mix of grasses good for their diets, including big bluestem grass and other tall grasses. When supplemental feeding time rolls around, Litwhiler said the buffalo know it. They recognize the vehicle that delivers.
“The whole herd will just come running,” he said.
The herd is close to maximum size now, Edmonson said. If the numbers increase, top perhaps 100, there may be efforts to move some bison to other preserves. The Nature Conservancy has several such operations in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Illinois, Iowa and elsewhere.
It is not impossible other groups or organizations will seek their own bison.
“Other parties will want to establish new herds,” Litwhiler said.
In some areas, notably Montana, Native tribes have begun raising their own bison herds with buffalo transplanted from Yellowstone. Could such arrangements with tribes be in Nature Conservancy bison’s future?
“That could be a possibility,” Litwhiler said.
Just how many bison will be born this calving season, between April and June, remains unknown. There was more snow and cold compared to recent years, and that could affect things.
“Our winter was harder,” Litwhiler said.
Yellowstone National Park the cradle of bison
Yellowstone National Park is home to 3,500 or so bison. By intergovernment-agency agreement, the population is capped. Still, the size of the population varies year to year, sometimes due to the harshness of winter weather.
This was where the last 23 bison in the country were counted in 1901, and any pure genetic strain of bison in the country are said to stem from that group.
In 2016, when President Barack Obama signed legislation that named the bison the national mammal, there were an estimated 182,000 in the United States. Now, the estimate ranges up to 350,000.
Rick Wallen, Yellowstone’s chief bison biologist, a few years ago referred to the recovery of the bison as the “GOAT,” the greatest of all time, conservation recovery of any species in American history.
While there have been notable such success stories, including the bald eagle, the whooping crane, gray wolf and American crocodile, Wallen believes the bison deserves the designation because it recovered without the aid of the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
Yellowstone’s bison are tourist attractions that thrive to the point of threatening to overwhelm their sustainable food levels. A few years ago, the herd topped 5,500. During winter months, the park has been forced to cull the herd and has also donated bison to the Fort Peck tribe in Montana to start its own herd.
“They have done well over the years,” Wallen said of Yellowstone’s buffalo capacity to reproduce. “They produce at the highest rate of ungulates. It’s a renewable resource.”
When let be, when transplanted to new homes around the country, bison have done well. Once treated as disposable vermin, given the buffalo’s renewed stature as the national mammal, it is now often viewed as emblematic of national history.
“I feel lucky to be able to work with bison,” said Litwhiler, who until 2018 worked with prairie chickens in Texas. “There’s something about it, something American.”
There is no guarantee a visitor will see bison on the land at Kankakee Sands. The bison go where they wish within the parameters of the fencing. Still, the preserve was built to maximize the opportunity to view bison by hiking up a hill from a parking lot in one place or by parking near other fencing if the animals chance to wander close.
From one vantage point, two groups of a half-dozen bison each were hanging out, perhaps 100 yards away. Their size was not obvious from afar, but they did not blend into the trees or hills.
One family scrambled up the hill for a look. Rachel Campbell, husband Adam and their four kids drove the 30 miles from DeMotte to see bison. Rachel said she previously supervised a homeschool group field trip to Kankakee Sands.
“I thought, ‘Why have I never stopped here before?'” she said.
Her 9-year-old, Maren, was pleased with the excursion.
“I saw one,” she said. “I liked lit.”
On the other end of the enclosure, a short haul as a buffalo stroll, but a couple of miles around as the car drives, Maren could have seen 15 bison at once, gathered in close quarters, munching on grass, sprawled on the ground, one big boy sitting less than 30 yards from the fence.
This was a living, breathing slice of Americana, a conservation success story generations removed from an American tragedy.