A livestock semi trailer from South Dakota pulled into the The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands project along U.S. 41 in Newton County before dawn Saturday. It backed into a newly fenced field and the gates were opened.
Over the next 30 minutes, 23 bison made their way out of the truck, disappearing into the tall grass of an 1100-acre prairie restoration.
According to land steward Tony Capizzo, these large vegetarian creatures aren’t just for show.
“These bison are being brought to Indiana as a conservation tool," he said. "Bison are selective in their diets. They focus in on grasses and sedges - they tend to leave the forbs, the wildflowers alone. So you have our 23 individuals that are out there, selectively grazing all the time. Influencing the prairie as a result.”
Capizzo says the conservancy hopes by thinning the predominately tall grasses the bison will help improve plant diversity and wildlife.
“Prairies that are dominated by tall grass are great for a certain suite of species - things like Henslow’s sparrows, dickcissels, as far as birds go," he said. "What we’d like to do is increase the abundance of some of those other birds -- things like upland sandpipers and northern harriers.”
Capizzo says as part of the preparation for the bison at Kankakee Sands, the conservancy researched the history of bison in Northwest Indiana. He says they were last seen in Indiana about 1830.
“We found several records, including one that’s about 10 miles north of our current location," he said. "The picture that we get is that instead of the very large migratory herds that you would have found west of the Mississippi, herds this far east would have been much smaller. They would have been much more tribal. They would have had a home range and stick within that home range.”
Special parking and viewing areas have been created and are open from 7 a.m. to dusk.