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Where to See the American Buffalo Up Close in Kansas

Photo of an American bison on the prairie.

The American bison was adopted as the official state animal of Kansas in 1955. It's often called the American buffalo, but bison is the preferred scientific term. A recent PBS documentary tells the story of the bison, which once numbered in the millions across the great plains. The animal was nearly killed off by government decree, but as Commentator Rex Buchanan tells us, a Kansas man helped save the animal from extinction.


See the American Buffalo Right Here in Kansas
By Rex Buchanan

A few weeks ago, PBS aired a two-part Ken Burns documentary called “The American Buffalo.” Some people told me that they found the film painful and discouraging. And I’d agree that part one of the documentary, detailing the bison’s demise, was hard to watch. The government-encouraged wholesale slaughter of a species, at least in part to hasten the subjugation of Native peoples, is difficult to understand, even after watching the Burns explanation.

But part two, about the recovery of the species, is at times uplifting, maybe a lesson about the positive things we’re capable of.

That part of the story has a Kansas connection. Charles “Buffalo” Jones was, in the 1870s, a buffalo hunter. But he moved to Finney County in southwestern Kansas, gave up hunting, and began collecting bison, at one time accumulating the country’s largest bison herd. 150 head.

He eventually sold that herd but continued his interest in bison, buying and breeding the animals in New Mexico and eventually in Yellowstone. He’s at least part of the reason bison are still around today. And thank goodness they are.

Bison are magnificent animals with a strong hold on our imagination. They are simultaneously ungainly, powerful, and dignified, with broad shoulders and massive heads and shaggy coats. I never get tired of looking at them. And if you want to see them, Kanas has plenty of placers to do that.

One of the best is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills, down by Strong City. There you can hike through pastures where bison graze, though it’s important to keep your distance. They are unpredictable animals.

At Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in McPherson County, out in central Kansas, you can see the bison from the safety of your car. We drove through there late last summer, and much of the herd of 150 had taken up residence in the middle of a sandy road. We had to maneuver around them. Bison have the right of way, after all. But we could see them up close. We could even listen to their grunts. Maxwell also offers tram rides out amidst the herd, if you’d prefer a more off-road experience.

There are other herds in the state, some public, some on private ranches that offer tours. And just across the state line in northern Oklahoma, northwest of Bartlesville, the Nature Conservancy operates a preserve with 2,500 bison, the biggest bunch around here. You can drive through that preserve too.

A few years ago, I got into one of the famous traffic jams in Yellowstone National Park. When I got close to where traffic was held up, I could see the problem: one car blocking part of the road, so that its passengers could stare at a lone bison bull. As I got closer, I saw the car had a Kansas license plate. And even closer, I saw it was a Douglas County plate. And as I pulled around the car, I recognized the driver - somebody that I knew from Lawrence. He shall remain nameless. But all I could think was, if you wanna' see bison, we got lots of 'em in our own part of the world. And you don’t have to fight traffic to see ‘em.


Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey.