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Roundup keeps Oklahoma bison herd thriving

November 19, 2017

PAWHUSKA, Okla. (AP) — You hear them before you see them.

It’s a loud rumbling, almost like waves of thunder clashing. Then they emerge, running, out of the thick fog.

Hundreds of bison thundered into the corral at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve early Thursday morning, as part of the 2017 Bison Roundup.

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, near Pawhuska, is the largest protected example of tallgrass prairie in North America at about 40,000 acres, said Bob Hamilton, preservation director for the Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma.

“It’s the most aggressive attempt to try to restore that original tallgrass prairie ecosystem,” Hamilton told the Enid News & Eagle .

On that 40,000-acre preserve, a herd averaging 2,600 to 2,700 bison roams on about 24,000 acres during the year.

“They’re free to go where they want to go within that 24,000 acres, except for about two weeks out of the year when we ‘invite’ them to attend our roundup,” Hamilton said.

The annual roundup holds two large purposes: to adjust the herd size and perform an annual health checkup on the bison.

“We don’t want to have disease issues and other kinds of health issues within the herd, so roundup is a one-time opportunity to administer any kind of vaccinations we think are necessary,” Hamilton said.

Each year, 600 to 700 calves are born, so about the same amount of bison are sold after roundup, said Harvey Payne, communications director and the first preservation director of the agency. About a dozen people run the corral system during roundup.

“We have a pretty conservative stocking rate. If we didn’t sell surplus animals each year, they’d quickly run out of something to eat (and) overpopulate the area,” Payne said. “The natural predator of the bison historically was the wolf. ... Well, the wolf is gone ... so we’re the ‘predator.’ So we round them up each year, we inoculate the bison just like our ranching neighbors inoculate their cattle ... and then we sell surplus animals; we sell those by sealed bid.”

Each day of roundup, a large portion of the herd — usually anywhere from 600 to 800 bison — is rounded up in the main corral at the break of dawn and herd maintenance is completed throughout the rest of the day.

This year is the 24th annual roundup, dating back to the first one in the winter of 1994. There were two roundups in 1994 and one every fall since, Hamilton said.

Efforts to create the preserve began in the early 1980s, Payne said.

“The park service and the major conservation organizations wanted a prairie park since the 1930s, and it’s what the park service called the ‘missing link.’ Out of almost 400 entities (that) make up the National Park Service system, they didn’t have tallgrass prairie any place, so that’s what they wanted to get,” Payne said.

Early efforts were targeted in the Flint Hills of Kansas, but all failed, Payne said. In 1984, efforts began in Osage County to establish the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. A preserve system was pursued instead of a national park because the Osage Nation owned the minerals in Osage County and, in order to have a national park, the government would need to own everything, Payne said.

The Nature Conservancy bought the land in 1989, and work began in 1991, Payne said. Bison were reintroduced in October 1993. Prescribed burning also began that same year.

Since the preserve is private, it’s not dependent on the National Park Service or congressional allocations but instead funded through private donations.

“It’s truly a gift from the American people to the American people,” Payne said.

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve’s herd of bison began with 300 head in 1993, which were then confined to about 5,000 acres, Hamilton said.

“We gradually enlarged their unit as the herd grew. It went through about seven or eight different pulses as the herd was growing. It took about 15 years to grow up to the herd we have now, and we reached that target in I think 2008,” Hamilton said.

The ultimate goal for the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is to restore the area back to its pre-settlement-era tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

“The bison, of course, were the primary historic grazer and the kings of the prairie back in pre-settlement days, and so they were the obvious first piece of the machinery to put back together to get back out there,” Hamilton said.

The bison provide a unique type of grazing on the prairie, different from other animals such as cattle, Payne said. A bison’s diet consists of about 99 percent grass, while cattle’s diet is 80 to 85 percent grasses and the rest broadleaf plants. There are about 750 plant species on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, and 150 are grasses while the rest are broadleaf plants.

“If you read early accounts of explorers in this area, they talk about a sea of wildflowers. Well, a lot of that was diminished or left with cattle grazing,” Payne said. “What we’re going to see here is with the bison grazing, is I expect to see an increase in the broadleaf plants ... and flowering plants or broadleaf plants support a greater insect population than just grasses.”

That insect population and plant seeds then feed a number of bird species.

“What we’re trying to do is promote biodiversity, restart the ecological processes that shaped this landform, so that it may continue to evolve to whatever shape it gets,” Payne said.

Nationally, there are about 500,000 bison alive now in North America, and part of a growing private enterprise, Hamilton said.

Back in the late-1800s, there were an estimated 30 to 60 million bison roaming the Great Plains, but the numbers were cut down to less than 1,000, nearly taking the bison go extinction.

“Everybody knows the story and the reasons behind it. But they almost became extinct, and the restoration of that species since the late-1800s has just been tremendous. It’s really one of the major conservation success stories for North America,” Hamilton said. “To bring an animal back like that that had such important (impacts) ecologically and spiritually, of course, for Native American people and their way of life ... so tremendous success story.”

In addition to letting the bison roam around the 24,000 acres, the Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma manages fire within the same landscape, doing a variety of controlled or prescribed burning.

″(We) try to put fire back onto the landscape in ways that again we think simulates how fire used to occur in pre-settlement times in terms of its seasonality and frequency and the scale of it,” Hamilton said.

Ecology, conservation and preservation aside, Hamilton said one of his favorite parts about roundup is smelling the bison. He recalled a few days previous to the start of roundup, when he and several others were chasing a few stragglers into a smaller holding pasture with the rest of the herd.

“So we’re out there with ATVs (that) morning moving them around. And the wind was blowing just right and we’re trailing them, and in the morning with it being real damp, they have kind of that damp, musty, ancient sort of smell to them,” Hamilton said. “They’re just, they just smell wild. I just like them.”

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Information from: Enid News & Eagle, http://www.enidnews.com

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