Sunday, July 9, 2017

Indiana - Where the Bison Roam

With respect to Brewster Higley who wrote the lyrics to "Home on the Range", buffalo don't and haven't ever roamed in North America.  But, bison have for thousands of years (buffalo are the mammals in Asia and Africa), and were named the national mammal of the United States in 2016. So, we decided to celebrate Fourth of July weekend by seeing some bison in their natural habitat in northwest Indiana at Kankakee Sands Preserve, about 1 hour, 45 minutes northwest of Indianapolis.



The Nature Conservancy purchased the 7,200 acres at Kankakee Sands about twenty years ago. It was once one of the largest marshes in North America, but the natural habitat was stripped and turned into farmland at the turn of the 20th century.  The Conservancy has preserved as much of the original land as possible and restored the rest by planting native grasses and flowers to resemble the prairie land that once was home to thousands of flora and fauna not seen in decades.

In fact, there is a bison jumping over a log on the Indiana State Seal.  However, the Governor's website still calls it a buffalo.

What makes their conservation of this area so unique is that they introduced a herd of bison to the field in November 2016.  The bison are a keystone species which means that other specials in an ecosystem largely depend on them.  A great infographic by The Nature Conservancy explains it. They are also the largest land mammal in North America.

There are now 32 bison, with several calves born this spring.  They are thriving in the land as it was hundreds of years ago.

Unfortunately, the bison were too busy munching on grass far away from the trails and lookout points, so all we saw were some puffs of dark brown in the distance.  However, a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy gave us some background on them, answered our questions and let us touch some of the hair that they had rubbed off on tree stumps, which felt more like cotton than wool.


Still, the area is beautiful and there are grasses and flowers that I haven't seen before.  You could almost see the oxen-pulled covered wagons across the prairie.

We saw a couple of copper colored lizards racing around, too.  Other than a short trail that runs alongside the parking lot, there's no other vantage point to see them, which was a bit of a disappointment.  They are enclosed by a 8 or 9 foot fence with electric on it.  And, signage makes it clear not to jump in with the bison.
Although we were bummed not to see the bison up close, we had another stop on the way back to Indy to see some other mammals native to the United States. We headed to Wolf Park in BattleGround, about 10 minutes from Lafayette.

Established as a research and education center, Wolf Park has wolves, coyotes and foxes.  As wolves have a 1/2 mile long flight distance (the distance they want to flee from seeing a human), it was difficult to do research on them (before the days of wifi, wireless cameras and GPS).  So, they hand raise the pups from 10-weeks old so that they are acclimated to humans.

A guide took around their grounds for a 45-minute tour, describing their habits, how they are raised and their care.

And lo and behold, they also have a herd of bison!  These guys were a lot closer and you could see the big male and a couple of copper-colored babies.  So, all was not lost on our quest to see bison on our adventure!


Wolf Park was just the right about of talking and walking to keep my boys interested. They also have a small education center and gift shop.  They do a lot of seminars and lectures about wolves and other canines.  And, I'd like to go back for their Howl Nights, when you get to go and listen to their trademark sound and learn more about this behavior.  It was great to see these gorgeous creatures in a natural habitat.


We capped off our day with a visit to the Triple XXX Family Restaurant in West Lafayette - great burgers and shakes, and best of all, their homemade root beer.  

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