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American Bison The sight of the American bison must have been tremendous. Vast herds covered the plains, grazing the tall grasses that are now fodder for our domestic cattle. In a very short time, the bison went from herds numbering in the thousands, to near extinction and back. In the early 1800’s, bison were the king of the plains. They migrated over large tracts of land in search of newly grown grass. Their intensive grazing would completely annihilate an area. The prairie grasses and forbs that evolved from the repeated disturbance gave rise the to resilient plant community that allows the military to intensively use the prairie of Fort Riley. The bison soon fell to the long range rifles made famous in the late 19th century. “Skinners” all across the plains harvested the bison without limit. The hides were shipped away and the bones ground for bone meal. With fewer and fewer bison to be found, the Native Americans lost their source for food, shelter and clothing. For a period of time the only remaining bison were found on farms and zoos. In the late 1800’s a few hundred head of bison were found wild, roaming Yellowstone Park. Although the bison would never freely roam the plains again, the species was saved from extinction through careful breeding programs of the few remaining individuals. Fort Riley was part of the later recovery of the species, housing bison from the early 1950’s until the late 1990’s. The bison herd was a popular visitor’s attraction for many years on post. At first, they were held in the corral by the Post Cemetery. When they outgrew that, most were placed in a pasture south of Williston Point Road. When the herd grew to 58, a decision was made to transfer much of the herd to Kansas State University, to be placed on Konza Prairie. The bison herd was maintained on Fort Riley until recently, when the remainder of the herd was transferred to Konza Prairie. Today, the Konza Prairie has more than 100 head of bison, many of which are descendants of the Fort Riley herd. The bison on Konza Prairie are used to study large herbivore impacts to the tallgrass prairie. Today, there are an estimated 1 million bison in North America. Many of these reside on livestock farms around the country. Some bison can still be found in a natural environment in National Parks such as Yellowstone in Wyoming and Windcave National Park in South Dakota. Closer to home, the Konza Prairie allows visitors to view the bison as native grazers of the Kansas Flint Hills. Although Fort Riley no longer has a bison herd, a short trip south of Manhattan to the Konza Prairie is well worth it. Once there, it is easy to conjure up a scene of what life was like 150 years ago when Fort Riley was just getting established and vast bison herds still roamed the prairie. For more information on this or other natural resources topics, please call 239-6211 or visit our website at.


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