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Bison gone wild: Herd returns to restored prairies of Northwest Missour

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2011 - Near the end of November, the final piece in a prairie restoration in northwest Missouri fit into place.

OK, it thundered.

Since 1999, Dunn Ranch, in Hatfield, near Eagleville and Bethany, Mo., has undergone a prairie restoration with seeding and reseeding, fire cycles and harvests, all working toward bringing the land back to its former self. In 2007, the process truly geared up, says Randy Arndt, Grand River Grasslands site manager; and at the end of October, a herd of 36 bison arrived to complete the picture.

After a few weeks in pens getting settled in their new home, the herd was released onto Dunn Ranch's more than 3,000 acres of prairie grasslands.

"Once they saw the gates open, they pretty well thundered out of the corral onto the prairie," Arndt says. "It was pretty exciting."

The addition of the bison to Dunn Ranch is part of an ongoing restoration, he says, and that takes time.

Tall grass prairies once covered a third of Missouri, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Now, that number is less than 1 percent.

According to the Nature Conservancy, which funded the project in the Grand River Grasslands, grasslands are the most endangered and least protected habitat on the planet. Now, though, more than 70,000 acres of prairie that stretch into Iowa have returned.

"I really think it's just a picture of America's heritage," says Amy Hepler with the Nature Conservancy, "the breadbasket of the United States, and what it looked like before people came."

Prairie Home Expansion

On the day the bison were released, Hepler joined the crowd gathered to watch them.

"It's really open and rolling," she says, looking onto the prairie. "Like all the words that you always hear. It's very majestic. Very picturesque. It's really beautiful up here."

Dunn Ranch and the larger Grand River Grasslands make up one of a number of prairie restoration projects around the state.

They include Prairie State Park, which is the largest of these efforts, in the southwest part of the state. The first piece of land for that was bought in 1980, according to Brian Miller, natural resource steward.

"Tall grass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country," he says, echoing the Conservancy.

In 1982, bison were introduced to Prairie State, and now, there's a herd of between 100 and 130, with 20 elk as well. According to the DNR, the park has more than 150 birds, 25 mammals and 25 reptiles, 500 species of plants, including 25 rare and endangered plant and animal species. Badgers, greater prairie chickens and grasshopper sparrows are just a few park residents.

Miller says farming, overgrazing and planting exotic plants, such as fescue caused the prairies to dwindle to near extinction. And to help bring the prairie back to northwest Missouri, the Nature Conservancy in Missouri basically had to start from scratch.

The seeding and reseeding, burnings and harvests, all with the goal of restoring an ecosystem that is now so rare, is "really a never-ending process," Arndt says.

The benefits, he says, are many, including providing a home for wildlife and reducing run-off from rain. Hundreds of plant specie are also present that are quite limited elsewhere; and one of them could, he says, hold the cure for diseases like cancer.

"If we lose the prairie, we lose that opportunity."

Also lost for decades were the picture of the animals long-associated with the prairie, Hepler says.

"The bison were that final piece we didn't have on the prairie."

Where The Bison Roam

Bison aren't cows, obviously, and they don't act like them either.

"Bison graze differently," Hepler says, and that difference benefits the prairie. Basically, they choose the plants they eat, which helps maintain plant diversity on the prairie. But the herds also have to be managed because they also can overgraze.

Bison also have a social order that looks more like a community.

"Everyone pictures the vast herds of bison that once were on the plains and they think of them as one big herd of bison," Arndt says.

Instead, he says, they're a multi-family unit that is led maternally. That leadership, Arndt says, is established over generations. And while the herd looks like one group, they separate into their families when they're all together.

"There's really this social hierarchy of family groups."

It's important to maintain the right balance of males, females and young bison. And the bison at Dunn Ranch have no evidence of cattle DNA, Hepler says, which helps maintain their genetic diversity.

According to the National Park Service, bison aren't an endangered species. About 30,000 live in public and private herds, and another 400,000 are raised as livestock.

While the bison are back, at least in pockets around the state, the challenges of restoring and maintaining prairies in Missouri are many. It's expensive, Miller says, and requires time and staff.

But the benefits, Hepler thinks, are also many. A piece of our past is preserved, and even better, becomes available for people to experience.

In the next year, Arndt says, Dunn Ranch plans to expand the herd by another 30 bison, with an eventual goal of 250 to 350 depending on the season.

Now, the bison there are settling into their new home, reclaiming their place on the prairie.

"They're doing well," Arndt says. "They're doing real well. They've calmed down and they just seem like they've been there forever."