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Annual rites of spring include buffalo births and renewal

Beccy Tanner

For this month's Hidden Kansas, Beccy Tanner shows us how buffalo talk to each other on the Kansas prairie.

BARBER COUNTY — Deep in the Red Hills of Kansas, at the 43,000-acre Z Bar ranch in Barber County, 2,000-pound giants regularly walk across ridges and clearings. Noses to the ground, they nibble on blades of grass, bellowing primordial sounds, deep and guttural.

These are buffalo. The ranch has 1,900 males and females with 200 baby calves so far this spring but with a total of about 700 expected.

It is the largest privately-owned herd in the state and one of the best places for curious Kansans to see how this land may have looked and sounded like 150 or 200 years ago.

No other animal has such an iconic legacy in Kansas. The buffalo is featured on our state quarter and seal. We even sing about them in our state song.

Yet, few of us have ever experienced them up close, let alone hear the sounds they make as they slip through the prairie grasses.

April and May are the months when babies are born, as the hills transform into their spring colors.

But wait … is it bison or buffalo?

“Well, they are technically bison,” said Eva Yearout, who along with her husband, Keith,

manage the Z Bar, southwest of Medicine Lodge.

“We call them buffalo because, to me, it’s kind of like cattle producers. These cattlemen eat beef; we raise buffalo and eat bison.

“But they are technically bison.”

Beccy Tanner

A pained past

More than 25 million buffalo once were spread across the prairies.

In 1541, when Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado came through what would become Kansas, he would write that the Plains were filled with such a quantity of bison "that it is impossible to number them."

The buffalo was emblematic of the West and the great grasslands that people found as they explored the area. They came to symbolize free will and free range.

But during much of the 19th century, the buffalo nearly became extinct as they were hunted for their tongues and hides, which were in great demand on the East Coast and in Europe.

As settlers encroached on the buffalo’s habitat, Native American tribes were forcibly removed from Kansas.

Now, nearly 150 years later, seeing buffalo across the state is becoming more common.

The animals are returning the prairie back to its original state.

Beccy Tanner

A conservation comeback

Before buffalo were allowed to make a comeback, some ranchers allowed cattle to overgraze, nearly killing the native prairie of big bluestem, switch, Indian and little bluestem grasses. Invasive red cedar were everywhere.

The buffalo and regular fire conservation burns have changed that. The Z Bar does regular burns each year. And that’s helped the prairie reawaken.

On this land, western meadowlarks, lesser prairie chickens and quail call out. Along with the buffalo and native grasses have come to prairie dog villages, burrowing owls, golden eagles, prairie chickens and antelope.

In groupings of 20 to 60, the buffalo stay within five to six feet of each other. The groups stretch across the horizon.

As Eva Yearout shows a couple of ranch visitors the herd, she cautions them to never underestimate the power of a buffalo: They can run up to 35 mph and turn faster than a horse.

Smart and ever watchful, the buffalo can determine which pickup is Yearout's across the horizon. She was driving the cube truck — which contains miniature range feed pellets or cake — and her wild bison have been trained to come running when they hear the truck banging and puttering along the prairie trails.

For people who have not grown up with buffalo, her visitors were curious about how the prairie sounds when the mommas speak to their babies. Do they have their own special language when the newborns are running around?

“They definitely have a language,” Yearout said. “I mean, bison grunt, where cattle will typically bawl.

“They will grunt for their calves and will grunt back and forth. During breeding season, the big bulls will growl. It’s a real deep … so, they definitely have their own language.”

As the buffalo gather near Yearout’s truck, these sounds are surprising — the pickup dropping the cake cubes, mammas talking to babies, and the deafening silence of 2,000-pound animals slipping through prairie grass and munching.

The grunts are loud — so are the snorting sighs as the babies answer back to their moms.

“It’s just kind of like you and I talking,” Yearout said. “It’s how they communicate. You can tell when one is getting into a fight. They make noise and sounds — they communicate — and they let you know there’s life on the prairie.

“You may hear them before you see them, depending on the height of the grass.”

But always, always keep your attention on the animals.

“They are a wild animal,” Yearout said. “There is no such thing as a pet buffalo. They have horns, they know how to use them.

“You have to treat them with respect.”

How do you see the buffalo?

You are welcome to view the buffalo if you stay on township roads. The area is on open range. Take US 160 west from Medicine Lodge to Milepost 207; turn left and take the Aetna Road about 15 miles south to Cottage Creek Road, turn left and travel another four to five miles to see the buffalo.

Do not get out of your vehicle. Stay on the township roads. Be respectful of the buffalo.

For more information or to arrange for group tours, contact Eva Yearout at 620-247-6465.