The last wild bison in Indiana was seen near French Lick in 1830. Nearly 200 years later The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has added northern Indiana's Kankakee Sands tract to its list of preserves hosting American Bison (Latin name: bison bison).
On October 15th twenty-three of the animals were released onto an 1100-acre area of restored prairie on the property. The sixteen cows and seven bulls will be the second epoch of bison grazing on northern Indiana's native grasses as herds did for centuries before farming interests plowed the prairie, drained the Great Kankakee Marsh and straightened the Kankakee river itself.
Over the last twenty years TNC has restored 7,600 acres of area farmland to native prairie and oak savanna. Now, bison are being added into the mix. "It was the natural next step. We've been preparing for this for the last four years." said Ted Anchor, Site Manager at Kankakee Sands and director of the project.
The animals require no supplemental feeding and relatively little upkeep but the benefits of having them roam the prairie are tremendous. Bison, the largest of all North American mammals, help to keep the grasses in check and allow native wildflowers to flourish. The animals also help spread seeds and propagate healthy mixtures of plants in new areas. The wallows they create hold water during rain season and give amphibians a place to reproduce on the open prairie. The list of benefits goes on and on. They are literally doing the work of conservationists and helping everything from butterflies to bullfrogs along the way.
The staff at Kankakee Sands has done an impressive job getting things in order ahead of the arrival of these magnificent beasts. Fence was stretched around the area to keep the bison away from nearby U.S. 41 and corrals were constructed for when the animals need to be gathered for veterinary or collection and redistribution reasons. A road was constructed to the visitors area that was once a small island in the marshy prairie. At the end of the road is a spacious parking lot with two trail heads that lead to slightly higher ground where one can see the herd no matter where on the property they happen to be grazing.
On a recent trip to the property to view the herd, the author spoke with Javonte and Jillian Anderson of Merrillville, IN who came down to see the herd for themselves, "Its not every day you can see this. I mean, bison roaming in Indiana, just as they did in the past. It is pretty impressive!" said Javonte with Jillian nodding eagerly in agreement. "It's pretty incredible." added Jillian, "Well worth the trip!"
With the extreme openness of the landscape, the bison can usually be seen from passing cars on the county road just off of US 41 so take caution when driving in the area as brake lights are often seen when unsuspecting motorists notice the nearly-one ton beasts grazing lazily in plain sight. There are signs on surrounding county roads directing you to the viewing areas.
The Kankakee Sands Preserve and nearby Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area should be on every Hoosier outdoor enthusiast's bucket list. The area is well worth a visit!
For more information:
Map of Area: