Rodney Ricklefs

One of the promising industries for agriculture harkens back to the days when bison roamed the Kansas prairie.

HUTCHINSON — One of the promising industries for agriculture harkens back to the days when bison roamed the Kansas prairie.

When Moundridge rancher Dick Gehring started his bison ranch more than 30 years ago, he did it for the money. The animals quickly became his passion.

“Whether the money was there or not, we hung in there,” said Gehring, the owner of Black Kettle Buffalo in McPherson County. “It gets in your blood, and you can’t let go.”

Gehring, a four-generation rancher with a herd numbering more than 500, now calls them one of the “bright spots in agriculture.”

Bison are adaptable and thrive in different environments. The National Bison Association says there are an estimated 385,000 bison in North American private, public and tribal herds.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture shows South Dakota has the most bison, followed by Nebraska, Montana, Idaho and North Dakota. Kansas ranks 10th with more than 5,000 head.

“It’s just like raising cattle, only different,” Gehring said. “They’re wild animals; you can’t breed it out of them.”

Gehring has spent years helping to grow the Kansas Buffalo Association, whose membership now includes more than 75 ranches. He is also president of the board of directors of the National Bison Association.

Ryan Brady, co-owner of Instinct Bison Producers in Ingalls in Gray County, called Gehring his mentor. Brady decided six years ago to include bison along with grains on his farm. He raises more than 80 bison on his cow-calf operation.

“It is exciting to be a part of the movement of working with nature and the soil rather than trying to conquer or tame (it) for our needs,” Brady said. “Adding the bison and cover crops to the farming operation hopefully provides my children the choice to continue the path of sustainable farming.”

Gehring said that because of the self-sufficiency of bison, they are low-maintenance. But they require steadfastness and patience.

The National Bison Association’s goal is for the bison in the U.S. to become 1 million strong.

“It’s a slow-growing animal,” said Karen Conley, spokeswoman for the National Bison Association. “They’re good for the environment. Their carbon footprint is pretty small.”

Millions of bison roamed the Great Plains up until the late 1800s. The herds then dwindled dramatically. During the 1920s, there was an effort to bring them back. In 1924, the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area obtained the first publicly owned bison herd in Kansas. More than 60 bison roam in this Garden City refuge of a little less than 4,000 acres.

“Kansas was the heart of buffalo country,” said Tom Norman, area manager at Sandsage. “Buffalo are an important part of our history.”

Sandage — like Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, which has about 200 bison in Canton in McPherson County — uses the animals to preserve its grasslands.

The same is true in Manhattan at Konza Prairie Biological Station, a native tallgrass prairie preserve jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University. Researchers there are examining how the prairie operates by studying the habits of about 300 bison.

“We’re trying to understand, at its basic core, how the tallgrass prairie functions,” said Jeff Taylor, bison head manager at KPBS. “We consider the three main drivers of the pasture: fire, climate and grazing.”

Two Native American reservations in northern Kansas also maintain bison herds.

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