HATFIELD — Purebred bison have returned to Northwest Missouri's prairie for the first time in nearly two centuries to fulfill an important role.
A herd of 36 American Bison was introduced to Dunn Ranch Prairie in northwest Harrison County in late October. The Nature Conservancy — a worldwide private nonprofit organization — has operated the 4,183-acre ranch for more than a decade as a prairie restoration project.
Conservancy officials said bison serve a vital mission in promoting grassland ecosystems. Herd grazing patterns and other traits balance the prairie and create niches for native plants and animals, according to the conservancy.
Randy Arndt, who is Grand River Grasslands Site Manager, said the bison are hardy and free range, requiring no supplement to their prairie-based diet of grasses and sedges — other than minerals and salt placed in a corral. Only the most extreme weather would result in feeding anything else to the animals.
The bison will be confined to ranch property with fencing that exceeds industry standards. A total of 1,200 acres are fenced now, with 1,250 acres to be fenced next year. North and south bison units will then be created within the ranch. Private fencing separates the animals from a property owner who has cattle.
"Once a year, we'll round them up to deal with any health issues," Arndt said.
The genetically pristine herd originated from a partnership with Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota — home with Yellowstone National Park to the only two known public herds with no evidence of cattle inbreeding.
"The opportunity arose," Arndt said of purchasing the bison. "It didn't set out to be a goal of ours. ... It was more by happenstance."
There are 23 females and 13 males, the latter of which include two breeding-age bulls.
The ranch experienced no difficulty in introducing the bison to their new home and acclimating them to the presence of humans.
"They adapted fairly well to the new surroundings," Arndt said. "They were a little skittish for the first week or two."
An upturned tail means a bison is agitated, he said.
The lead bull weighs 1,300 pounds. Adult cows range from 900 to 1,000 pounds, and yearlings come in at 600 to 800 pounds. Calves are 60 pounds at birth. There are five calves in the herd.
Novelty that's obviously attached to the brawny beasts has already taken root like native prairie grass. "Traffic has really increased," Arndt said, "people trying to get a glimpse of the bison. ... We've already had schools out here."
Although education is not part of the conservancy's mission, the bison will be used to teach visitors about the prairie. Its other herds are located in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado and Oklahoma. A small herd was introduced to a Mexican preserve in 2009.
The conservancy's goal is to overwinter 250 bison at Dunn Ranch, perhaps in six or seven years, in a program of fostering genetic breeding lines. Some of the bison may eventually be sold as meat, but that's not their primary purpose.
Managing the prairie — in concert with native reseedings, tree removal, invasive species control and prescribed fires — is the bison's main duty. Their thick head and shoulders are used to burrow for food.
"They'll be attracted to the growth," Arndt said. "We're trying to create this variety of vegetation — to attract other grassland wildlife. ... They're the plowers of the prairie."
The only predator concern in the area might be from coyotes during calving season, but no more than what's expected for cattle.
The conservancy intends to work with nearby residents to promote the bison's presence in Harrison County and boost the economy through ranch visits.
Arndt said he began planning four years ago for the bison introduction, attending roundups to increase his knowledge of the animals. The conservancy itself has 25 years of experience in bison management.