Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is located in the heart of the Flint Hills—the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie left in the world. It is the only unit of the National Park Service (NPS) that is dedicated to the rich natural history of the tallgrass prairie.
A Unique Model to Preserve the Tallgrass Prairie
In 1996, Congress authorized the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, creating a unique model of private/public ownership that was called "a model for the nation" by Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker. The authorizing legislation mandated that the majority of the preserve must be owned by a private entitiy—not the federal government.
By 2004, the preserve’s private partner had run into financial difficulty, to the extent that it appeared portions of the land would be sold to satisfy debt and other liabilities. The Nature Conservancy came to the park's aid by purchasing the preserve and partnering with NPS to preserving and enhance this significant remnant of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
Why the Flint Hills?
Tallgrass prairie once covered more than 170 million acres, from Canada through Texas and as far as Ohio in the east. Rich prairie soils made the region prime for agricultural development. Most of the tallgrass prairie was converted to cropland within just a couple of decades, making this once expansive landscape North America’s most altered ecosystem in terms of acres lost. Of the roughly 4 percent that remains today, most (about two-thirds) survives in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma.
Alternating layers of chert (flint) found in the limestone gave the Flint Hills region its name. The preserve and surrounding Flint Hills were spared from the plow because it was too rocky. Because the land couldn’t easily be farmed, homesteaders soon found that the region was best suited to cattle ranching. Ranching continues to dominate the local economy and is the primary agricultural use of the Flint Hills.
One of the Most Diverse Ecosystems In the World
Tallgrass prairie is an incredibly diverse ecosystem. The preserve is home to over 500 species of plants. Prominent grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, and little bluestem appear to dominate the plant community; however, they are far outnumbered by the diversity of herbaceous plants (wildflowers). Fauna ranges from large grazing animals like deer, bison, and cattle to a multitude of insects, amphibians and reptiles and other animal life. Grasslands birds, like greater prairie-chicken (a type of grouse), which have lost much of its native habitat, are of particular interest.
Bison: An Icon Returns
In 2009, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service reintroduced bison to the preserve. Thirteen bison were secured from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and shipped to start a small satellite herd at the preserve. These bison are first to roam the preserve in over a hundred years. The public is encouraged to the visit the preserve and welcome the herd which has reached 100 bison.