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Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: from the park brochure

The Last Stand: Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America. Now less than 4% remains, mostly in the Flint Hills of Kansas. On Nov 12, 1996, Congress created the 10,894-acres preserve, protecting a nationally significant example of the once-vast tallgrass prairie ecosystem, while preserving a unique collection of cultural resources from prehistoric times through the ranching era.

Central North America, once called the Great American Desert, supports 3 types of grasslands. Tallgrass, mixed grass, and short grass prairies respond to decreasing rainfall amounts, while providing food and habitat for hundreds of prairie animals. For grasses dominate tallgrass prairie-big and little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass. Travelers and traders crossed the vast prairie to find greater opportunities, but development was inevitable as settlers discovered the rich prairie soil.

After John Deere invented the steel moldboard plow-it could cut tough prairie sod-settling and cultivating the Prairie grew by leaps and bounds. In less than a generation the prairie soil was broken, the land settled and forever changed.

American Indians knew well the value of the prairie end of human harmony with nature. Tribes of the Kaw, Osage, Wichita, and Pawnee made this region their home and hunting grounds. Millions of bison roamed the plains, providing food and shelter, and ceremonial life for the tribes. As the United States expanded, Indian removal policies forced the Indians into reservations and changed their cultures. In part to subdue the Indians, the bison were slaughtered almost to extinction. As settlement and agriculture followed, the tallgrass prairie made its last stand.

The Flint Hills of Kansas: over 250 million years ago this area was a vast inland sea that deposited great layers of limestone, shale, and flint. The flint hills were created as softer shales eroded away, leaving behind hardened flint shelves, in a process called differential erosion. The flint hills were too rocky to plow, except in the bottomland of creeks and rivers.

Prairie fires: before humans lived here, lightning ignited fires raced unchecked over the prairie until a large river or stream stopped them. Bison followed the burning Prairie, grazing on tender new plant shoots. Seeing this, American Indians used fire for attracting large grazing animals to hunt. Managing the prairie by using fire and grazing allows for greater prairie diversity. Today, the preserve staff works to mimic these natural processes for the prairies health.

The Prairie Lives Underground:

A significant world exists underground as the tall grass prairie root systems reach down 15 to 25 feet into the soil, surviving fire, drought, and the changing environment. In dry periods, prairie plants go dormant, conserving energy for regrowth when rain penetrates the soil. Thousands of nematodes and other animals help keep the prairie healthy through their normal life functions. They turn and aerate soil by digestion or burrowing. A handful of sod can hold 50-100 nematode species, microscopic worms that eat their way through soil. Burrowing mammals and reptiles evade predators by tunneling.

Over 200 springs and seeps on the preserve begin underground and meander through layers of limestone before they reach the surface. Aquatic life, like the endangered Topeka shiner, thrives in these pools and streams. This seldom seen underground world-nematodes and vast plant root systems mining rich, deep soils-gives life to the creatures above.

Prairie Life Above Ground

Over 400 species of plants,150 kinds of birds, 39 types of reptiles and amphibians, and 31 species of mammals await your discovery here. Examples of most commonly seen animals are rabbits, turkeys, ornate box turtles, snakes, upland sandpipers, collared lizards, and grasshoppers. Far more elusive are foxes, pocket gophers, coyotes, and deer. Bears, antelope, panthers, and bison roamed the North American prairie before it was settled.

Greater prairie chickens prefer areas away from human activity, and their presence indicates that the prairie is biologically diverse. These members of the grouse family need taller, denser grasses for nesting, but they also need open spaces with shorter vegetation-called Leks or booming grounds-for breeding. Where the conditions are diverse, prairie chickens will return to the same leks yearly to mate. The birds are threatened by habitat loss, due to conversion of native prairie to crop land and development.

Prairie life above and below ground work together, along with the preserve's cultural heritage, to tell the continually unfolding story of this fascinating and special place.

Legacy of the Tallgrass Prairie:

One Prairie, Many People: before this land became Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, many people had cared for it. Set in the Flint Hills of Kansas, this was the traditional land of the Kaw, Osage, Wichita, and Pawnee before its legacy of owners, which included railroads, settlers, ranchers, and business people.

In 1878 Stephen F. and Louisa Jones came here to build a cattle feeding station for their family's Colorado cattle operation. They bought land from individuals and the railroad, growing the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch to 7000 acres. The Joneses owned the land for only 10 years, but left behind ranch buildings in the Second Empire architectural style. They also left over 30 miles of stone fence that had been needed when the cattle range went from open to closed. The fence remnants remind us of this period of change in the cattle industry.

Barney Lantry, the Joneses' neighbor and business partner, bought the ranch in 1888. He combined it with his own ranch for a total of 13,000 acres. After he died, the ranch went through a series of subdivisions, including 1909 to 1935 when the Benninghoven family owned part of the ranch. After they lost it in the Great Depression, George Davis bought it and other land to reunite the Jones and Lantry ranches. In 1955 Davis died; his 11,000 acre ranch with it's grand buildings became the Z Bar Ranch.

The Z Bar Ranch, with all the Joneses' grand structures intact, became Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in 1996. The Nature Conservancy, which owns most of the land, manages the preserve with the National Park Service. As you experience the park, look for clues to the past, present, and future of this prairie legacy.

Exploring The Park: The Preserve is near Strong City Kansas between Wichita and Topeka. Hours and programs are listed on the park website. You can observe ranch activities, and enjoy hiking, fishing, programs, and tours. The visitor center is 2 miles north of the US 50 and KS177 intersection, a half mile west of Strong City.

Park programs include living history demonstrations, ranch building tours, guided prairie tours, and self guiding cell phone tours. Children can participate in the junior ranger program.(None of this was available during our visit due to remodeling being done.)

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve LOWER FOX CREEK SCHOOL: Built in 1882, this one-room school served students until 1930, when it was abandoned and reverted to the ranch owner. The school is a 1/2-mile walk from the ranch headquarters.

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