A bison’s eye glistens. Its gaze holds curiosity, wisdom, strength and a “don’t mess with me!” attitude. Their sheer bulk and shape demand attention. They are graceful walkers, fast runners (up to 35 miles per hour), high jumpers, (they can clear a 6-foot fence), and strong swimmers. They are an ancient animal on the North American continent, arriving from Siberia during the middle Pleistocene age. Weighing in at 2000 pounds for a mature bull and 1200 pounds for a mature female, the bison of today are a much smaller animal but impressive, nonetheless.

Keystone Species

Bison, or buffalo, are a keystone species on the prairies of North America. Much like the beaver or the oak tree, they provide habitat for many other critters. If they were not present, other critters would not be either.

As a nomadic animal, bison spend a fair part of each day moving as they graze. Seeds that have been picked up along the way drop off at other spots creating a mosaic of successional vegetation. This in turn provides food, cover and nesting sites for prairie dwelling birds like meadowlarks, Henslow’s sparrows, and Northern Harriers.

“Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna lillianae)” by Dominic Sherony is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse.

The feces from bison enrich and fertilize the soil, providing nourishing material to plants like Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) and White False Indigo (Baptisia alba) which in turn provide food for many pollinator insects. Thanks to bison, dung beetles have plenty of material to roll around and lay their eggs in.

Monarch and swallowtail butterflies, green darner dragonflies, meadow voles and garter snakes are all dependent on buffalo wallows. Created by continued rolling of multiple animals, these depressions in the earth hold precious water after a rain event. In a habitat where water is limited, these wallows are life savers.

A Storied History

For the last 12,000 years, until the middle 1800’s, bison have been intimately intertwined with Native American culture. Providing food, clothing, shelter, tools, containers, dice, sleds, kitchen utensils, and so much more. These shaggy animals provided everything necessary for a successful livelihood. With the onslaught of colonization and the systematic slaying of most of the roughly 30 million bison on this continent, an entire species was nearly lost, and with it, a way of life that had existed for thousands of years.

Despite these efforts to eliminate them and diminish their way of life, Indigenous people are still here, and their connection to the bison and the land persevere today. And thanks to the intervention of many, bison are returning to the land they once roamed. In more recent years, bison populations have been slowly climbing up from an all-time low of less than a thousand animals to today’s population of roughly 500,000. These iconic creatures have captured the hearts of all who see them so much so that they have been given the status of our national mammal.

Bison belong on the prairie. This year another herd will make its way from NorthStar Bison of Rice Lake, WI to spend the summer grazing big bluestem grass, wallowing to remove fur and scratch insect bites, spreading seeds as their winter coats fall off and being an integral part of this complex grassland ecosystem.

Join us on May 18th!

May 18th is the Belwin Bison Festival, a day of celebration as we proclaim the arrival of this new herd to Belwin’s Bison Prairie.

The day will be filled with music, laughter, food, learning, playing, meeting friends new and old. The pivotal event of releasing the bison from the truck that brings them here will happen close to noon. People will gather at the tower, along the fence and on the viewing platform to cheer the beloved animals into their summer home. It is a day of great fun and also, for me, a day of humble respect for this animal that has weathered many storms and continues, in spite of it all, to persevere and survive.

For more information on bison:

  • Watch Ken Burns American Buffalo on PBS
  • Read “Bison Symbol of the American West” by Michael Sample
  • Read “American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon” by Steven Rinella
  • Read “Buffalo Hunt” by Russell Freedman

Lynette Anderson takes a photo of a blooming pasque flower at belwin

Attend an upcoming event with Lynette as your guide! Visit our events page for more information.

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