The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, held by the Nature Conservancy, is the largest acreage of uncut, untilled native prairie in the United States. To get there, go to Pawhuska, Oklahoma and head north on County Road 4201. You’ll drive under a HUGE wrought iron archway that says “Gateway to the Tallgrass Prairie”. Drive about 15 miles to the entrance, then SLOW DOWN. Enjoy the drive.
Before any English ever sailed the seas to find that elusive passage to China, the Tallgrass Prairie was one of the largest ecosystems in this land. It covered over 142 MILLION acres. There was a rich diversity of plants and animals that was shaped only by fire, climate and grazing.
Now, since we have in our own horrid way “improved things” by creating farms, towns and cities across the plains, less than 4% remains of this once huge ecosystem.
Oklahoma and Kansas are now the only two states to have unbroken prairies still within their borders.
The Nature Conservancy purchased a 29000 acre ranch known as the Barnard Ranch in 1989 which forms the cornerstone of the preserve. It took 15 more years before the Conservancy was able to raise enough money to make more land acquisitions, create start-up costs for the preservation and use of the preserve and the endow the preserve with ongoing management. It is now just under 40,000 acres.
300 Bison (yes, we call them Buffalo…which is WRONG by the way) were re-introduced to the Preserve in 1993, and the herd under management has increased to just over 2700. They think. If you’ve ever tried to count free roaming Bison you’d know just how difficult it is to actually count them one by one. They just don’t stand still long enough to do so!
There is a visitor’s center where one can make purchases of books, photographs of the ranch and herd, tee-shirts or other small mementos. There is also a large learning center within the building. I came away with an armful of handouts on the ecosystem and history of the original ranch.
The building the docents called “the bunkhouse” was interesting as well as beautiful. A grouping of rooms with a central kitchen where the ranch hands could get their meals, and bedrooms where they could sleep on their days “off range’. The vast majority of furnishings were original to the Barnard Ranch. There was a large portrait of Ben Johnson in the dining room.
The docent told us that he had been a cowboy on the Barnard ranch when Howard Hughes contacted the ranch for horses and cattle to be sent to California for a movie. Ben Johnson was in charge of the transporting. Once he arrived with the cattle, Mr. Hughes quickly learned that his actors had no idea what to do with them., so he hired Ben Johnson to herd the cattle for the movie.
That was the beginning of a long movie career that includes “the Last Picture Show”.https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067328/videoplayer/vi2180317465
We spent a good two hours driving slowly along calleche roads winding through the hills…every now and then stopping at a ‘turn-out” with an informational sign and a view that took our breath away. We watched meadowlarks and scissor tail swallows swoop and turn over the meadows. And Bison…my lord the size and magnificence of those beasts simply blew me away. Atop one hill, looking down into the rolling valley below, we saw a herd of about 300 Bison and could easily imagine what the plains looked like to early settlers. It was amazing.
Enough words. Here are a few (awful) pictures taken on my phone. Maybe you can get just an idea of how wonderful this trip was….I hope so anyway.