Indiana’s Grand Prairie – where bison roam free

]When French explorers first set foot in contemporary Indiana in the late 1670s, the state was almost 90 percent forest, from the southernmost shore of the Lake Michigan to the Ohio River. Tallgrass prairie comprised the bulk of what wasn’t deep green.

The iconic Great Plains that – along with magnificent bison herds – blanketed the nation’s midsection from the Rocky Mountains east reached its easternmost point in a narrow swath of land that today borders Indiana's northwestern border with Illinois. The tallgrass – one of three basic prairie types, along with mixed-grass and shortgrass – dominated a hundred miles of landscape from the Kankakee River basin near Rensselaer to the Wabash River Valley north of Terre Haute.

But after two centuries of agricultural drainage and urbanization, Indiana’s Grand Prairie today is the most altered natural region in the state. Only miniscule remnants of the original exist, mostly along railroad tracks and around pioneer cemeteries. But there are places, like The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands, where prairie retains a hold on the land – and where bison roam free for the first time since 1830.

The 7,800-acre Kankakee Sands is one of the state’s largest prairie restorations, managing remnants and restorations of the marsh, sedge meadow, and wet to dry sand prairie ecosystems that dominated in presettlement times. Known as the Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands, the preserve supports more than one hundred rare, threatened, or endangered plant and animal species.

Among the animals that roam free at the Sands are the bison – a.k.a. buffalo. In, 2016, The Nature Conservancy relocated 23 from South Dakota to the preserve near Morocco, Ind.  The herd has grown to 34. The prairie is dissected by the four-lane U.S. 41 and a couple county roads, so their range is limited to a little more than a thousand acres.

Kankakee Sands is also a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area (IBA), due to its “overall diversity and abundance of obligate and facultative grassland, savannah, and wetland birds.”

And it’s but one natural area in Indiana where native prairie plots are being preserved, reintroduced and maintained.

In Southern Indiana, the Shakamak Prairie Nature Preserve protects a moist-prairie natural community type inside Shakamak State Park, which spans the corners of Sullivan, Greene and Owen Counties. The Powell Preserve in northwest Monroe County features a plot of replanted prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Prairie restorations are also ongoing at diverse locations north of Indianapolis like Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve in Hamilton County, Prophetstown State Park and Weiler-Leopold Nature Preserve in Tippecanoe County, and Boot Lake Nature Preserve in Elkhart County. Ditto Merry Lea in Noble and Whitley Counties and Judy Burton Nature Preserve in Fulton County.

Most of the prairie in Indiana today lies within the Grand Prairie Section of the state’s Grand Prairie Natural Region, defined by the Indiana Academy of Science, which occupies the historic tallgrass area.

Kankakee Sands is part of a broader natural complex that includes the adjacent 453-acre Conrad Savanna Nature Preserve and 342-acre Conrad Station Nature Preserve, both of which include small prairie remnants and are managed to simulate natural conditions, and the 9,556-acre Willow Slough Fish & Wildlife Area, which encompasses the 249-acre Barnes Nature Preserve, with its dry and dry-moist sand prairies that are likewise remnants.

The 29-acre Spinn Prairie Nature Preserve, which parallels a railroad track in White County, protects a remnant of the original landscape, where the vegetation reaches eight feet high in summer. The 79-acre Holley Savanna in Newton County harbors 10 acres of high-diversity, low-stature prairie. The 220-acre Fisher Oak Savanna in Jasper County features ongoing wet black-sand prairie and prairie-savanna restorations.

And Kankakee Sands isn’t the only Indiana natural area contributing to the American bison’s restoration. They don’t run free at Ouabache State Park near Bluffton, but an enclosed herd there are likewise part of the ongoing nationwide efforts to restore North American’s largest mammal to a natural state.

Kankakee Sands and the Grand Prairie Natural Region is next on the Northern Indiana guidebook itinerary.

Prairie restoration photographs: Top, Weiler-Leopold Nature Presaerve, Tippecanoe County; Center, Shakamak State Park, Sullivan County; Bottom, Judy Burton Nature Preserve, Fulton County


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