On this land, you'll find a sight that almost vanished from America — bison roaming a prairie as they did hundreds of years ago. Dramatic chalk bluffs overlook large expanses of grassland, rocky ravines and Smoky Hill River. Breaks along the upper reaches of the river represent a transition zone between mixed grass and shortgrass prairie environments. When the Conservancy purchased Smoky Valley Ranch in 1999, it was the largest land acquisition for conservation in state history.
This prairie supports tremendous plant and wildlife diversity while continuing its long history as a working cattle ranch. In western Kansas, 80% of the native prairie has been converted to some other use. Demonstrating that healthy wildlife populations and successful ranching operations go hand-in-hand is critical to retaining the 20% of the prairie that's left.
Saving the Prairie One Cow at a Time
At Smoky Valley Ranch, the Conservancy's fundamental grassland conservation strategy is a moderately-stocked, rest/rotation grazing system. On about 90% of the ranch, the Conservancy is gradually improving plant community conditions, increasing habitat for wildlife and forage for cattle. Areas of improved forage also serve as ideal habitat for upland nesting birds, such as prairie-chickens, that require tall, residual grass. Black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets (one of North America's most endangered mammals) can be found in a small, interior portion of the ranch.
In December 2017, a small herd of bison with unique genetics was established at the ranch.
Prehistoric Remains Abound
The chalk badlands along the Smoky Hill River contain a rich fossil record of animals that lived in a vast inland sea that covered Kansas during the Cretaceous Period, 80 million years ago. The Cretaceous Period was part of the Age of Reptiles, an era famous for its dinosaurs. Although dinosaurs were restricted to landmasses far from western Kansas, their marine representatives — mosasaurs and plesiosaurs — roamed the seas. Besides these large marine reptiles, huge turtles, sharks, flying reptiles, giant clams, and toothed-birds inhabited the area. Because fossil remains are so well-preserved and scientifically significant, the chalk badlands are among the world's most famous locations for fossils from this era.
A Paleo-Indian site, the first physical evidence that humans inhabited North America at the end of the last Ice Age, was unearthed on Smoky Valley Ranch in 1895. This discovery contradicted contemporary theory and was not confirmed until 13 years later when a similar discovery was made in Folsom, New Mexico.
Since man first visited this area, the banks of the Smoky Hill River have served as an east-west highway. Mounted Arapahos and Cheyenne, Charles Fremont, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, the 7th Cavalry of George Custer and the 10th Cavalry (buffalo soldiers) rode the Smoky Hill Trail many times through Smoky Valley Ranch in the late 1860s. The Butterfield Overland Dispatch stage line passed through and stopped at a way station located on the ranch to change horses and drivers. Beginning in the late 1800s, a number of African-American settlers — nearly a hundred families — settled on and around the ranch. Two brothers from a nearby black settlement quarried the stone and built the current ranch headquarters in the early 1900s.