March 1, 2012
Drought forces temporary move of 40 animals
GARDEN CITY — A two-year drought is forcing the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) to move bison from the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area, near Garden City, to Maxwell Wildlife Area, in McPherson County north of Canton. The drought has depleted forage on the area, and the move is being made to protect both the sensitive range as well as the bison.

“We have been supplementing the bison with hay and range cubes since August,” said area manager Tom Norman. “However, the bison still have too great a need for grass for supplements to be a long-term solution. Also, the Sandsage Bison Range is a pretty fragile ecosystem, so maintaining the type of vegetative cover that provides food for the bison and prevents sand movement is a challenge even under normal climatic conditions. A drought makes it almost impossible to maintain vegetation to provide for either.”

Attempts to stay within the carrying capacity of the range have resulted in consistent herd reductions since 2002, and today, the herd has 50 percent fewer animals than in 2001. Even with the reductions in herd size, the pastures have been unable to keep up with the forage needs of the bison. According to Norman, the area needs long-term rest.

“We will be moving 40 head and retaining nine,” Norman explained. “We would take all of them, but there just isn't room at Maxwell for any more. The bison we retain will be kept in the corral pens at least until we get some forage growth this spring. I am hoping to get a large exhibition pasture fenced to hold them until we can allow them into the sandhill pastures. But it all depends on precipitation. We are hoping that conditions will improve enough to bring the majority of the herd home in the fall.”

The agency began transporting animals on Feb. 29 and plans to complete transportation by the end of the week. Since Feb. 8, the herd has been confined to the corral pens, where they have been vaccinated against the Mycoplasma bovis organism.

Historically, bison herds would move great distances during drought, but today’s fences across the Great Plains require transportation by truck and trailer. The 2,500-acre Maxwell Bison Refuge was donated to KDWPT in 1943 by Henry Maxwell to create a wildlife refuge dedicated to bison and other prairie species.