Sandsage bison tours prove a hit with visitors
By RACHAEL GRAY
Saturday morning at the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area pasture, brothers Jaren, 7, and Jacob Lopez, 5, saw the bison in their natural habitat for the first time.
They also learned some facts about the animal. One young bison bull slowly approached the two Suburbans full of tour participants, then stopped and stared. In the distance, bison cows grazed on grass with their calves close behind him.
Once the Suburbans and people were deemed not to be a threat, the young bull lost interest and walked away. The rest of the herd began to walk in the opposite direction, toward a ridge on the horizon.
The calves followed their mothers over the ridge.
"They're going to see grandma," Jacob said.
His eyes then went to the ground, where he picked up a hardened clod.
Tom Norman, area manager with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, led Saturday's tour. It was part of a day of excursions.
"You've found recycled grass," Norman said to Jacob.
Jacob dropped the clod before he knew it was OK to touch it. The boys then began to break it apart.
Norman explained how the animal's excrement helps fertilize the grass and helps the flow of nature.
Norman's words stuck with the boys.
"I learned that the chips have white worms that turn into flies," Jaren said.
"I learned that some people call them chips, and some people call them poop," Jacob said.
Marsha Nelson, the boys' grandmother, took them and their mother, Nicole Lopez, on the tour Saturday morning.
"I saw it in the paper, and we've always wanted to do this," Nelson said.
"I loved it. It was cool. We've been wanting to come out here to see the bison," Lopez said.
During the tour, the family, along with several other families and individuals, learned about the herd.
In 1950, the herd had about 150 bison. That grew to 180 to 220 during the 1960s because of moisture and grass production.
In the 1990s, the herd averaged about 125 head with 50 to 60 calves.
Ten years ago, the herd had 70 head.
The herd dwindled to half its size in 2002 due to drought conditions, Norman said.
In recent years, the herd has been historically low due to the ongoing drought. It has been reduced by 80 percent and is currently at 16 head with two calves, Norman said.
The herd may grow, but Norman wants strong grass production first.
"Even with good rains, it doesn't mean the grass production will increase rapidly. We'll have a small herd in the meantime," he said.
But the small herd was still excitement enough for the Lopez boys and their family.
"We always drive by here and talk about going. So today, we did. It was a great day for it," Nicole said.