Reintroduction of Bison to Iowa: Frequently Asked Questions

Why are you introducing bison to the preserve?
Bison were a natural and integral part of the prairie ecosystem before Europeans settled the vast central tallgrass prairie. And, similar to fire, the impact the bison made on the prairie was critical to the health of the prairie. Bison grazing provides a “disturbance” which allows for a more diverse mix of prairie species and a diverse structure critical for the survival of the animals dependent on prairie habitat. By reintroducing bison, we will reintroduce this healthy disturbance.

Why bison? Cattle are already on the landscape.
Cattle can be very beneficial to prairies if grazing is carefully controlled (i.e. preventing overgrazing). However, from the perspective of the prairie, bison are better. In general, bison are much more mobile than cattle, do not require special care during the winter, and are not as dependent on a nearby permanent water source. Bison benefit the prairie differently from cattle. Read more about bison, the Conservancy and the environmental need differences between bison and cattle.

I’ve heard that most bison are actually mixed with domestic cattle. Is that true and will that be true of this new herd reintroduced at Broken Kettle?
The Conservancy’s primary objective in re-introducing bison to Broken Kettle Grasslands is to provide for more efficient and appropriate management of the tallgrass prairie.

On the subject of “pure herds;” pure bison and mixed bison are impossible to distinguish without DNA. Their appearance and habits are very similar, and therefore in terms of managing prairie efficiently, it is not necessary to have a genetically pure herd. The Conservancy has been working with Texas A&M to genetically test all of our bison and then, each bison manager will decide how to best manage the herd in terms of maintaining our prairie diversity and, as a secondary benefit, conserving and ensuring the genetic portfolio of our diverse herds.

The new herd at Broken Kettle Grassland is unique in that this is one of a handful of herds in North America that has no cattle introgression, in that no cattle genes have been identified in available DNA testing. This herd is part of a closed breeding herd that originally comes from Wind Cave National Park. We are fortunate to be able to have access to these animals and will continue to manage the genetic integrity of this particular herd.

When will bison be released at BKG and how many are you going to release?
We expect to begin with a small 30-head herd to be released in late October 2008. Since these bison are part of a closed breeding group with no cattle introgression, we will be working with our bison managers to make decisions about expansion until we meet the capacity at Broken Kettle Grasslands. We eventually want to maintain a herd of 200 animals.

What happens when you get to the 200-bison target and the population keeps reproducing? If you cull animals, what happens to the meat?
We will need to limit the number of bison that we can maintain on the prairie at Broken Kettle Grasslands once we meet the appropriate carrying capacity for the prairie. Bison might be selected for culling based on their age or sex or both. Because we have a unique herd, we will be sharing our animals with other sites with an eye toward continuing this unhybridized line of bison. Some will be sold to other herd managers within the Conservancy or other producers. Bison selected for culling that are not sold live to other producers will be humanely killed on-site to avoid stressful and dangerous transport to a meat locker. The number of animals harvested each year will depend on natural mortality, herd dynamics and reproduction.

Will the Conservancy own the bison or will a co-op be formed with area farmers?
We have considered doing a co-op with area farmers because a co-op would engage area farmers as partners that could help us with fence maintenance, the annual round-up, monitoring animals and generally helping maintain the health of the herd. However, the logistics of managing a bison herd on Conservancy property for the long term is much easier if the Conservancy owns the animals outright. The Conservancy has and will continue to maintain good relations with our neighbors at Broken Kettle Grasslands.

Will I be able to see the bison if I visit the preserve?
We will have recommended viewing points along the road, but because of the rolling terrain of Broken Kettle Grassland and the independent nature of the bison themselves, you may or may not catch a glimpse of them.

Will bison roam the whole preserve? If so, will it be closed to hiking in the future?
No, bison will be managed as wild animals, but they will be confined by fencing to a 3,000-acre pasture in the northern portion of Broken Kettle Grasslands. The most popular hiking areas at Broken Kettle Grasslands are in the southern portion, and we don’t foresee a conflict. Still, the northern portion of Broken Kettle Grasslands will not be closed to hiking. Areas with bison will be posted. And, we would recommend you hike in the southern portion.

Will there be an annual bison round-up? Is there a chance that bison will transmit disease to domestic cattle?
We plan to have an annual round up to administer standard vaccinations and veterinary care. The round up will involve coaxing animals into a trap pasture and driving them into the corral facility. Most animals will be worked immediately and released the same day. Our animals will be vaccinated against the common cattle diseases.

Will we manage the herd as wild animals?
Yes, but they will be confined within our 3,000-acre pasture. We want to avoid as much human influence on their behavior as possible, such as conditioning them to trucks and people, but we won’t have them roaming onto neighboring pastures!

Broken Kettle Grasslands currently has cattle grazing for prairie management. Will cattle be phased out or will bison and cattle use the same pastures?
We will gradually phase out cattle as our bison herd increases. Bison and cattle will be separated with fencing.

Will there be one large pasture or will bison be rotated around the Broken Kettle Grasslands?
We currently have 16 pastures for cattle grazing, but the bison will mostly live in one large pasture. There will be a trap pasture and likely a small pasture to help move them towards the corral.