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8/17/2004

Ecology Revisited

The buffalo may no longer roam the windswept Kansas prairies as they once did, but their presence for so many hundreds of years still influences our state. Kansans will be forever associated with the shaggy beast that dominated and shaped the environment of the plains.  
Their impact upon their own surroundings created not only the prairie, but affected the ecosystem across the state in differing ways. Their numbers were greater as one traveled west. They were seen by early adventurers in untold numbers on the high plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. When their numbers began to decline, well before the great buffalo hunt of the 1870’s the decline was first recognized along the front range of the Rocky Mountains.  
As one travels from West to East across these magnificent grasslands the landscape changes in appearance from a seemingly barren shortgrass to the tallgrass prairie that once stretched all the way to Illinois. Experts will tell you that the types of grasslands reflect the amount of rainfall received and that as one travels from the driest areas to the wettest areas the types of grasses growing respond to increased moisture allowing the ever taller grasses to dominate.  
That’s all very simple and perhaps technically accurate, but from the back of this ol’ hoss there appears to be more to the story. When animals graze an area and leave it. The grass returns in a very palatable, lush form. The same thing happens following a fire. That lush grass often attracts the animals back to the grass to be grazed again before it matures. With larger and larger numbers of buffalo concentrating on the high plains the regrazing continued with concentrated populations. Tall grasses that had once covered the plains were grazed out leaving only the hearty short grass to dominate the dryer areas of the west. Continuing east the numbers of buffalo were not as concentrated and the grassland ecosystem reflects that as in central Kansas the prairie is a mixture of all types of grasses. Eastern Kansas supported even fewer numbers of buffalo and in that part of the state tall grass survives and dominates the prairie. The type of prairie evident today is directly associated with the historic grazing capacity of the buffalo in that particular area.  
Our environment was shaped by those great herds. It is changing today. Natural systems no longer exist. But, conscious people are designing new and interesting ways to imitate that system on our rangelands. When you’re driving even the smallest of pastures take a good hard look. Those leaves of grass are witness to the continuing drama that is The Prairie. 
So Long, 
The Cowboy 

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