Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Discover a piece of ancient America
More than 2,000 bison now dot the grasslands of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Photo by James Pratt
When Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World, sprawling grasslands swept down the center of North America from the prairie provinces of current-day Canada into what became Texas, spanning portions of 14 future states. An estimated 60 million American bison (commonly known as buffalo) roamed these vast “Great Plains.” The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska, portions of which are located within Indian Electric and Verdigris Valley Electric Cooperative territories, is the greatest stretch of this wild prairie remaining in the U.S. and the largest such virgin grassland on the globe.
Geoffrey M. Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation, described it as “one of the last great places on earth.”
Harvey Payne, having been born into this “sea of grass” and raised on a nearby Osage ranch in the 1950s knows these grasslands perhaps better than any other individual.
“Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon a remembered earth,” he said overlooking the grasslands dotted with herds of bison and a rich ecosystem of wildlife.
Free-roaming wild bison dominate the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. To American native peoples, the bison were as much a spirit force as beasts that provided food, clothing and shelter. But by the 1880s commercial hunting by European settlers pushing west had effectively destroyed the bison along with the ancient and traditional Native American lifestyle the animals supported. By the end of the century, the species had dwindled down to only 541 individuals.
Ranching replaced bison in the early 20th century as cattlemen moved in and built empires like the Mullendore Ranch and the 101 Ranch. In 1891, Harvey Payne’s great-grandfather walked from Springfield, Missouri, to settle in Oklahoma Territory. Harvey still owns and operates a nearby ranch. He also had his own law firm in Pawhuska until after 1989 when he was persuaded to join a five-member “save the Tallgrass” task force that evolved into the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy purchased 29,000 acres of the Barnard portion of the Chapman- Barnard Ranch through private non-government donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.
From that beginning the Preserve expanded into the current 40,000 acres—renamed in 2015 as the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in honor of Williams’ key leadership in the project. The Conservancy’s plan was to restore the prairie ecosystem to its natural state—including the bison.
At the time the Preserve was established, there were no free-ranging bison in Oklahoma. Over 2,000 bison now dot the grasslands of the Preserve, a sight that had not been seen anywhere on the Great Plains for nearly a century and a half. Currently, about 500,000 bison in the U.S. live on private lands such as the Preserve, while another 30,000 occupy public environmental and government preserves. Only about 15,000 of these are considered wild, free-range bison like those of the Tallgrass Prairie.
While the Preserve is not a museum, zoo, or theme park, it encourages visitors through an on-site Visitor Center open year-round that features displays, gift items, a soft drink machine, potable water and restrooms. No camping, overnight hiking, hunting or fishing is allowed on the grounds, although maintained nature trails offer day hiking. Tables along Sand Creek provide opportunities for picnicking.
Tourists arrive from every state in the union and from Canada, South and Central America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Signs warn them to be aware of the bison, as males may weigh over a ton, can jump up to 6 feet vertically, run as fast as 40 miles per hour, and are notably short-tempered.
Professor James P. Ronda, the first holder of the Horace G. Barnard Chair in Western American History at the University of Tulsa, partnered with Harvey Payne from almost the beginning of the Tallgrass enterprise. A talented writer, he collaborated with Payne, a gifted nature photographer, in the publication of “Visions of The Tallgrass” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018), the definitive book covering the history, geography, and ecosystems of the world’s most unique surviving grasslands—Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie.
“A piece of ancient America still alive and still able to touch us deeply,” Ronda concludes.