PAWHUSKA, Okla. -- In the most ambitious attempt so far to revive one of America's formerly vast and robust but now moribund ecosystems, 300 bison yesterday galloped headlong onto 5,000 acres of unfenced tallgrass prairie -- there to live free, eat their fill and play a major ecological role, as their ancestors once did.
Nervous at first in the presence of nearly 1,000 humans who had come to see them resume their ancient place in nature, nudged along by a phalanx of pickup trucks, they moved balkily from their small holding pasture toward the narrow end of a fenced-in chute that led to freedom.
Once through it, with nothing ahead but wide open spaces, they --ed pell-mell for the horizon. In no time, they became dark brown specks amid the tawny swells and swales of prairie autumn, and a scene incomplete for more than a century was suddenly whole once more.
For at least 10,000 years, the triple forces of climate, fire and the grazing of bison created conditions favoring maximum richness and diversity of plant life in the continent's midsection. The array was richest and most colorful in the eastern part of the mid-continent, where the climate was wetter and the open lands mixed with the forests of the East. This was the realm of the tallgrass prairie, where seas of grass rose taller than a man's head and hundreds of species of wildflowers graced the landscape in brilliant profusion.
Before European settlers and their descendants arrived, the tallgrass ecosystem covered more than 220,000 square miles and stretched from Canada into Texas and from Nebraska to the Great Lakes. Today more than 90 percent of it has vanished under the plow and the bulldozer, and most of the rest is so fragmented and degraded that it scarcely resembles its former self. As a result, the prairie and its attendant oak savannas have become the rarest of North America's major biomes.
But in the past year, on a 36,600-acre tract north of here owned by the Nature Conservancy, fire has periodically been sweeping the landscape once again and legions of fire-adapted prairie plants -- with names like jointed goatgrass and rattlesnake fern, ebony spleenwort and lady's tresses -- have sprung up naturally in its cleansing wake. And with today's re-introduction of the buffalo, all the ecological forces are now in place for the nation's first attempt to recreate and maintain the tallgrass prairie.
"We are basically putting the train back on the tracks and restarting the engine," said Bob Hamilton, director of science and stewardship for the Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. The reason the conservation group is doing this is that preserving an ecosystem's parts and setting them back in motion is considered the best way to preserve the most species in a condition in which evolutionary processes can play themselves out.
The 300 bison released into the wild are the first of 1,800 that will eventually roam the preserve, and their liberation was accompanied by more than a modicum of ceremony: an Osage Indian ceremony today making an honorary chief of Norman H. Schwarzkopf, the retired Army general and a member of the Nature Conservancy's board of governors; and speeches paying tribute to the cooperation of environmentalists, cattlemen, Indians who own the mineral rights and local residents who hope to see a tourist bonanza in creating the preserve.
From an estimated 60 million animals in the mid-1800s, the bison were hunted to near extinction. By 1900, fewer than a thousand remained.
Today, their population has rebounded to somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000, mostly on private ranches.
Tourists are clearly expected at the preserve. "Loose bison," reads a big sign on the gravel road cutting through the preserve. "Bison are dangerous. Keep your distance."
"This is sacred land; it is time for the bison to come home," said Mary Barnard Lawrence, whose family once owned the cattle ranch on which the preserve is situated.