Prairie Companion: Where the Buffalo Roam

“Technically these aren’t buffalo” our guide Dana told the group as we looked on at the pack of bison roughly 200 yards away. He pulled pictures of true buffalo from his pack and explained the difference. Real buffalo lived in Asia and Africa and they didn’t have fur. “But the idea of the American buffalo is so ingrained in our culture, the term is commonly used to describe them. And I see no problem using it.”

Located on the border of Missouri and Kansas, Prairie State Park is about two hours from Kansas City and five from St. Louis. As the name implies, it’s a prairie setting where the grass grows up to eight feet tall in the summer. Wildflowers add a splash of color throughout the year. It’s also home to roughly 60 bison.

Millions of bison once roamed the Great Plains. It’s estimated there were 20-30 million from the Appalachians to the Rockies, and as far north as Alaska. However, by the end of the 1800’s, there were only about 1,000 left. Now there are approximately 500,000 of the creatures across North America.

As we moved towards the herd, Dana provided plenty of information. Approach slowly and stop frequently, to let the bison get used to you. Keep about 100 yards away from the beasts. You can tell if they’re comfortable with you or starting to feel reticent about an intruder by watching their tail. If it swings back and forth, they are content. But, if it starts to go straight out, they are leery, and you should be too.

Despite weighing between 1,500 – 2,500 pounds, bison can run at up to 35 miles per hour. Their large lungs and windpipe allow the high speeds. With that much weight moving that quickly, you don’t want to be in front of one or many when they run. Bison also have horns, which help deliminate their sex. The male bulls horns go out and up, forming more of a football goalpost look. The female cows have horns that curl like a “C.”

Yellowstone and Wood Buffalo National Park (in Canada) have much larger herds of bison, but Prairie State Park offers a more intimate habitat. When driving out of the park, a mother and calf stood by the fence near the road, while others roamed near by.

You can learn more about their bison or wildflower tours through the Prairie State Park website or their Facebook page. Also, check out Amazon’s selection of books about bison.

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Jason is a writer and photographer. He has been published on, Beloit Daily News, The Capital Times Mashable and CNN. You can follow him on Twitter @The_Dean.

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