10 Bison, 1056 Miles, 3 Good Reasons Why

By Alyssa Nyberg

Imagine driving a tractor trailer from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota to Kankakee Sands—that’s a whopping 1056 miles–with 10 bison on board. What a long, white-knuckle, 17-hour drive that would be!

On Thursday, October 21, ten bison did indeed make that long trip from South Dakota to Kankakee Sands. A warm welcome is in order for these new recruits!

These 10 bison have a very important job to do at Kankakee Sands. In addition to all the things we ask of the current members of our bison herd – eat grasses and sedges, defecate on the prairie, wallow and churn up the soil, mate and create the next generation of bison, these newly arrived bison have an additional charge – they will add their genes to the genetic pool of our Kankakee Sands herd.

All ten of the bison are bulls. Two are 1.5 years old and eight are 2.5 years old. They will all be sexually mature when next fall rolls around and able to sire the calves of 2023.

Photo by Trevor Edmonson, TNC

The bulls create an opportunity for increased gene flow and for the bison species to adapt to future changes. Historically, gene flow would have happened naturally as young bulls set out from their mother’s herds to find new mates, joining millions of other bison moving across the landscape unrestricted. Today’s bison herds in North America are typically fenced and numbers are low, so intentionally mixing bison is important to ensure genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding.

With these South Dakota bison, we bring resiliency not only to our own herd, but to all the bison herds that we are coordinating with across North America. These ten bison are from Wind Cave National Park and are genetically related to those at Yellowstone National Park. By bringing them here, we are helping to expand Wind Cave’s unique bison genes to herds all around the U.S. so that one catastrophic event (like a drought or a disease outbreak) at Yellowstone National Park or Wind Cave won’t erase those genes forever. This is a good move for the conservation of this species’ genetic diversity, and will help to make sure bison are resilient long into the future.

Olivia Schouten, Kankakee Sands Land Steward, and Garet Litwiler, Kankakee Sands Conservation Technician, have been preparing for 6 months for the arrival of the bison.

Olivia has been in communication with The Nature Conservancy’s Bison Network – 12 Nature Conservancy project offices that are working together to join forces, knowledge and resources for their bison herds. She tracks data on all the bison in our herd and determines when new bulls are needed to protect genetic diversity.

Photo by Olivia Schouten, TNC

Garet, working with volunteers, has been augmenting our current corral to have a loading and unloading shoot that is a “welcome lane” onto the prairie. They have improved our corral facilities to provide the bison a low-stress experience during Bison Vet Day by installing blind panels that prevent the bison from being overly stimulated visually as they move from corral to corral and eventually to the scale to be weighed and given a veterinarian exam.  

We do all this–all the planning, building and data collection–for the very purpose of ensuring that bison will remain an integral, powerful part of our Kankakee Sands prairies and the prairies of North America forever. And in turn, we ensure that our prairies will also be strong and resilient into the future thanks to the timeless and age-old wisdom of the bison.

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The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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