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Where the Buffalo Roamed

"We all have our time machines. Some take us back; they're called memories. Some take us forward; they're called dreams."
- Jeremy Irons

By DAVE BERRY

I grew up wading in buffalo wallows. When the spring rains came, it was great sport to venture with my brothers out onto the pasture and wade in those large grass-lined puddles.

The farm was dotted with shallow round pits gouged out over the centuries by vast herds of bison that roamed free across the Great Plains. Wallowing in these depressions to coat themselves in dust or mud was one way to ward off biting flies. Experts say wallowing also played a role during mating season, when big males asserted their claims, and later the wallows became sheltered birthing spaces for pregnant cows and playgrounds for newborn calves.

The pasture, covered in buffalo grass, sunflowers and other long-stemmed grasses, still gave a hint of its pedigree - a small slice of the native prairie that fueled herds of shaggy beasts numbering more than 30 million.

The American bison, more commonly called buffalo, were disappearing from Kansas at the time my family arrived on the Great Plains. The four branches of my dad's family had migrated to America from Scotland, Ireland, England and the Isle of Man, most coming together in Chicago before joining the trek to Kansas by covered wagon. Others came by train to what was then track's end.

They carved out homes in the dirt, living in dugouts on the banks of Sellens Creek, in sod houses on their grassy homesteads or in tents and wagons under the cottonwoods until crops could be put in or sturdier homes constructed of wood or native limestone.

While their migration and the carving up of the prairie into farms obviously contributed to the mass slaughter of the herds that reached its peak as they arrived, they were not hunters. Their focus was on putting in gardens and planting their first crops of Russian Red winter wheat.

The first years were harsh, if not desperate. To supplement the family's income through the winters, my second great-grandfather in 1873 accompanied a group of "pickers" to the flat plains around Dodge City, where they scoured the prairie for buffalo bones, about all that remained of the vast herds. The bones were used in the manufacture of fertilizer, combs, dice, buttons and bone china, and the plan was to haul them to the rail station, where buyers paid from $4 to $6 per ton.

The trip went horribly wrong when a blizzard caught them on open ground. Most headed home, sheltering in and under their wagons and huddling together for warmth. My ancestor survived; others failed to heed the first signs of bad weather and froze to death. I treasure the buffalo hide mittens my great-great-granddad wore on that trip - with shaggy hair inside and tough leather outside.

Growing up, I enjoyed visiting tiny herds of buffalo - at most a half dozen head in each - at the Great Bend Zoo and the old Fort Hays military post. I was fascinated by the magnificent animals, but at the same time I was saddened to see them confined in their small, cable-reinforced compounds.

I was newly married when I saw my first herd roaming free. We drove across a cattle guard and through their open range on our way to a campground deep in Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains. I remember my joy at knowing we were seeing something special.

At one time, these great beasts had covered the plains. By the end of the 19th century, slaughtered for their hides and for sport, their numbers - in the wild and in captivity - had shrunk to just 541 head. The herd we photographed that day was descended from a small group of 15 bison, reintroduced onto the prairie in 1907 by Teddy Roosevelt's American Bison Society.

The first offspring of that Bronx Zoo breeding program arrived in Oklahoma by train, welcomed by a crowd that included Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. For more than a century now, the herd has flourished on the wildlife preserve's 59,000 acres.

Other herds have been successfully introduced - as many as 13,000 bison in public herds located from Texas to the Dakotas, from Arizona to Yellowstone, and in Canada and Alaska. More than 300,000 bison can be found in private herds. Another 7,000 are located on Native American lands in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming. Just last year, the Cherokee Nation introduced 38 bison cows onto a preserve in northeastern Oklahoma. In April, eight calves were born to the fledgling herd, proof they are adapting well in their new state.

One of my favorite destinations, the Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is home to around 2,500 bison. Scattered in smaller herds throughout 21,000 acres, the bison graze lazily over the rolling hills, ignoring the few visitors stopped along a single winding gravel road.

There's no rush, no crowd, no noise of the highway, no clutter of manmade structures... just rolling prairie and the wild herd. If you take the time, something magical can happen. As the herd flows quietly down the grassy hillside, across the road in front and behind you, moving on into the tall grass and stunted trees of the creek bed... it's a bit overwhelming. You can't help but smile as you celebrate the bison's resurgence and the return of the herds to the prairies.

Closing my eyes, I can also imagine for a moment being a child again... barefoot in the pasture after a spring rain, listening to the meadowlark's call, enjoying the earthy smell of newly plowed fields. Back then, I could only imagine what had been and lament what was lost - the great herds of bison that had once stretched to the horizon... before farms and fences, before houses and highways.

But now the herds are back, and they will always remind me of Kansas, of spring days with my brothers, wet grass between my toes... and wading in buffalo wallows.

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Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. This Focal Point column was published June 10, 2015.

Photo: As the rest of the herd grazes on surrounding grasslands, a buffalo bull cools off in a stream cutting through the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Oklahoma in August 2013. (Photo by Dave Berry)

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