Northern Indiana nature, not wilderness; more American bison at Kankakee Sands

With only three days of travel remaining on the Northern Indiana leg of a four-year journey through natural Indiana, I’m transitioning to a more reflective view of the project, starting with some numbers.

For example, the most common rejoinder I’ve received to the notion of a guide to Northern Indiana natural areas has been, “Are there any?” Well, I could tell tales of camping at and/or exploring several locations in the book that date back more than three decades. My first camping trip ever was a Boy Scout outing at Turkey Run State Park in the 1960s. So, I’m not surprised that there will be more natural areas in this book (125 +/-) than in its Southern Indiana counterpart (119).

But, as I realized returning from a three-day venture through the Grand Prairie Natural Region last week, in Northern Indiana I’m experiencing nature, not wilderness. At 15,000 acres, the Dunes National Lakeshore is the largest refuge north of I-70; the Southern Indiana book features 11 that are bigger than the Lakeshore. The Hoosier National Forest’s 202,000 acres are more than the northern sites combined.

I wrote an entire blog post (Dangerous Lessons on the Lick Creek) about getting lost in the Hoosier. I only recall feeling disoriented in Northern Indiana once, at the Spring Lake Woods and Bog Nature Preserve. But it turned out my befuddlement was a couple trail turns premature. Distracted by a Private Property sign, I was on course but hadn’t quite reached the spur to the parking lot. I had expected to reach Spring Lake, which is actually located across the road.

All of which takes nothing away from the Northern Indiana preserves. I could argue that, by virtue of being smaller, they are more precious, and their protection more vital.

With the exception of the Wabash River Valley and a couple places on the White River, most of what I found in the north – natural lakes, remnant and restored prairies, savannas, dunes – are nowhere to be found in the south or are notably rare if they do survive.

I still have one demanding road trip for this phase of the Natural Bloomington experience before I’ll have energy to think and write substantively about the bigger picture.

I’ll also have time to stop writing I so much. It's really lame.

Bison update: The buffalo roam free – almost

I knew the moment I pulled into the Kankakee Sands on Monday morning that my last blog post had overstated a bit the freedom a herd of bison there have to roam. When I arrived, the mighty horned creatures were at the corral, maybe a city block away from the office, whose driveway access is on the four-lane U.S. 41.

While they do roam free-er than any bison in Indiana since the 1830s, the majestic critters’ range is limited to a little more than a thousand fenced-in acres on the 7,800-acre preserve in Newton County, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Located just inside the Illinois State Line near Morocco, Ind., the state's largest prairie restoration is dissected by two county roads and the highway.

To elaborate a bit more on the animal itself, the American bison, which has two subspecies, is North America’s largest mammal. The wood bison of Alaska and Canada are larger than the plains bison that once roamed from West-central Indiana to the Rockies and now live at Kankakee Sands.

According to the Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife, 30 million buffalo inhabited the Great Plains in presettlement times. Today fewer than 30,000 wild bison survive in conservation herds like Kankakee Sands and Oubache State Park. Only 5,000 are unfenced.

During my brief stop, Kankakee Sands Land Steward Tony Capizzo told me the initial herd of 23 has grown by 11 since TNC transplanted them from South Dakota in 2016. Ted Anchor, TNC's bison project program manager, gave me permission to walk up to the coral and get as close to the animals as possible.

He forewarned the buffalo wouldn’t let me get too close. The bulls never took their eyes off me. But they let me balance my telephoto on the corral gate.

It felt like the first step toward a more reflective view.

Photographs: American bison, Kankakee Sands


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