Slowly but surely, the bison herd at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City is increasing. Now at 23 head, the goal is eventually to have a herd of 75 to 100 head.
The Nature Conservancy owns the herd, but it is managed cooperatively with the National Park Service.
The first buffalo arrived in October 2009, when 13 were shipped from a large herd at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. They are direct descendants of the millions of bison that once roamed the prairies. The Wind Cave herd was chosen as the source because they were tested to be free of cattle genes.
The bison are kept in a 1,100-acre pasture northwest of the farmstead. Several hiking trails and a tour-bus path winding through the pasture give the public chances to see the rugged animals in a natural prairie setting.
The original 13 head included six females and seven males between 1½ and 2½ years old. The first buffalo calf was born in May 2010, the first to be born on the site since the mid-1800s.
Since then, the herd has continued to reproduce. This summer, that first calf produced a calf of her own. The herd stands at 23 after six calves were born this summer and one animal recently was sold to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita.
For ease of handling, the herd is trained to follow a feed truck and is fed pellets during the wintertime to provide the animals with sufficient protein.
Last week, they were rounded up and weighed, dewormed, given blood tests to check for disease, and given vaccinations against black leg. The younger animals received identifying microchips.
Gene and Paula Matilo, who live along Middle Creek Road, are in charge of the herd. Gene Matilo manages cattle for absentee landowners, and Paula Matilo is an employee of the National Park Service.
Paula Matilo said herd numbers are growing more slowly than expected. She said funding fell through in 2012 because of sequestration. The government shutdown earlier this fall prevented the roundup of the bison at Wind Cave National Park, from which several head were to be brought to the preserve.
“We need to get some new breeders in here, but we’re OK,” Matilo said.
The entire preserve covers 11,000 acres. A visitors’ center at the headquarters provides information about the Flint Hills — its ranching tradition, unique grasses, wildflowers, and scenic beauty.