Bison return to prairie in central Nebraska

The herd of plains bison will be kept in this corral for a few weeks before being moved to larger and larger enclosures to acclimate them to their new home. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
The first bison to step off the trailer explores the corral at the Crane Trust in Grand Island. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
The first bison takes her time to leave the trailer for the corral. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
The bison herd will eventually move to a 200-300 acre pasture by crane season. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
This herd of 42 female and juvenile bison were joined by two bulls later in the week. The Crane Trust hopes to grow the herd to about 200 bison. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
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January 24, 2015 - 8:30am

There was a time when bison roamed the Plains. Now, a small herd of rare, wild plains bison is returning to Central Nebraska. They will be studied as they live on about 4500 acres of pristine prairie near Grand Island, and their arrival was highly anticipated.


The bison are late. They were scheduled to arrive two hours ago at the Crane Trust, but it’s tricky convincing a herd of 42 wild plains bison to get into a truck trailer, and then drive for five and a half hours from Crawford in northwest Nebraska to Grand Island in central Nebraska. But the trucks have just arrived, right before sunset.

“Well, I came because my friend told me about it! We were interested, the kids have always been interested in that kind of thing so I brought my grandchildren out,” Cathy Stoddard from Grand Island is one of a crowd of about 60 standing outside the bison corral.

About 60 people came to see the bison arrive at the Crane Trust at Grand Island, despite the gusty day and chilly evening. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)

The door to the trailer opens, and one very large bison is sitting at the end of the trailer, with her legs tucked under her body. The crowd murmurs an, “aww” and, after a few minutes, the bison gets up and leaves the truck for the open corral.

There’s something special about these bison, from Rimrock Ranch in Crawford: they have never interbred with domestic cattle. 95 percent of the bison in the US are mixed with cattle. The herd at the Crane Trust are some of the bison-iest plains bison you can find.

It takes the handlers a few minutes to convince the rest of the bison to leave the trailer. Caroline Wicks lives in Grand Island and is watching with her hands pressed against the corral fencing.

“There’s a variety of sizes. I’m sure ages. Maybe some of those are older, some are younger, there’s some babies over there. They’re just beautiful,” Wicks said.

This is the first time there’s been bison back in central Nebraska in two hundred years, to one of the few places where there’s still unplowed prairie.

“The trust owns title to Mormon Island which is this pasture to the east of us here is the largest remaining mid and tallgrass prairie in the state of Nebraska. These buffalo that are coming are gonna think they died and gone to heaven,” Tom Dougherty, board member for the Crane Trust, said.

Plains bison aren’t endangered, but there are far fewer of them today than in the 19th century.  One of the biggest efforts to restore bison has been through a partnership between the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative and the National Wildlife Federation. They’ve worked together since the 1980s to move overflow wild plains bison from Yellowstone to tribal reservations.

Outside, once the bison have had the chance to investigate the corral, Dougherty introduces his friend Louis LaRose. “Louie’s been a very dear friend of mine for many many years, and has forgot more about buffalo than I’ll even know. He would like to say a prayer."

Louie LaRose, member of the Winnebago tribe and former president of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, gets ready to pray with the bison. Read about the InterTribal Bison Cooperative's work in restoring bison.  (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)

LaRose steps up next to his friend and addresses the crowd before turning to the corral. “I talked to the buffalo and told them they were home, and not be afraid. This is a new environment. Now I’m gonna pray with them. This time I’m not talking to the buffalo, I’m talking to the Creator.”

The two men worked together when Dougherty was with the National Wildlife Federation and LaRose was the president of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative. While president, LaRose he saw bison introduced to tribal reservations, including the Winnebago reservation in northeast Nebraska. LaRose is always excited to see bison return to a place they used to be.

“After you work with bison, you begin to change. Your attitudes, your thoughts about bison. I came to understand that they’re a highly intelligent animal that the creator put them here for a purpose, same as he put man on earth for his purpose. And we were meant to be together,” LaRose said.

But no one actually knows what would happen — ecologically — to the prairie if bison came back.

“The science staff here said we really should see what bison mean to the habitat. What are the benefits or detractions as it relates to waterfowl and cranes?” Dougherty said this was one of the reasons the Trust brought this herd of bison to Grand Island.

Where did the bison go?

In the 19th century, natural historians estimate there were somewhere between 30-60 million bison in North America. Their range spanned from northern Canada, through North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and parts of Mexico.

At the end of the 19th century, after European settlers pushed west and  the construction of the transcontinental railroad, there were fewer than 1000 bison left. To conserve the remaining population, the federal government rounded up and placed the remaining bison at Yellowstone National Park.

Where are those bison today?

According to the National Park Service, there are 5000 plains bison in Yellowstone today. These bison, like the herd at the Crane Trust, have not intermixed with domestic cattle.

 

That study is going to take place over the next five years. For now, Crane Trust President Chuck Cooper seems to be just enjoying having the bison here finally.

“I got a little emotional. Because when you see ‘em, you can’t help but just be in wonder. I mean they’re prehistoric animals. And the fact that they’re still here and now that they’re back here. This will be the largest public herd within 200 miles in any direction,” Cooper said.

And so are many of their neighbors. Stoddard and her granddaughter Samantha Hansen are still watching the bison, despite the temperature dropping with the sunset.

“We got here just as they were, some had already been unloaded. I thought they were probably tired and ready to get off the truck,” Stoddard said. Her granddaughter pipes up, “I wanna pet one!”  

Asked if she meant to touch or to own as a pet, she replied, “Both!”

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