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Contact information
For information about Sandhill Wildlife Area, contact:
Sandhill Wildlife Area
1715 County Hwy X
Babcock, WI 54413
715-884-2437

Bison herd of Sandhill Wildlife Area

Bison at Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area

A herd of about 15 bison, or buffalo, are kept in a 260 acre enclosure along the Trumpeter Trail. Current management attempts to restore a native prairie-oak Savannah Community within this enclosure. Bison were once found in southeastern Wisconsin, but early day traders and Native Americans armed with firearms extirpated them from the state before the first settlers arrived in the 1830s.

In the late 1940s, Grange acquired several bison and their descendants thrive here today.

Bison in Wisconsin?

Although bison are usually associated with the western plains, herds once ranged from Georgia to the Hudson Bay and from the Appalachians to the Rockies. Bison were prevalent in the original prairie and savanna communities in southern and western Wisconsin. Bison likely wandered into the oak barrens of Wood County. The Sandhill bison herd that now roams the two pastures (totaling 255 acres) began when Wallace Grange acquired a heifer calf in 1946. After maturing, this heifer mated with a bull that Mr. Grange purchased in 1949. When the state purchased Sandhill Game Farm in 1962, Mr. Grange donated his herd of 12 bison.

Buffalo or bison?

The American bison is not a buffalo, but a bison. Our bison is related to the European bison or wisent (which migrated from Asia). It is not related to the hard-working water buffalo of Asia or the ferocious Cape buffalo of Africa. Early settlers called it the "buffalo" and it has been called a buffalo by Americans ever since.

Back from the brink!

The restoration of the bison from near extinction is one of the most dramatic conservation stories of this century. A combination of ranching, habitat destruction and market hunting quickly reduced the bison population from 60-70 million in the late 1700s to only 800 by 1890. This destruction took less than 100 years. The last two bison east of the Mississippi River were shot in Wisconsin in 1832. Fortunately, during the time wild bison herds were being destroyed, a number of people were developing small captive herds. Bison on National Wildlife Refuges and parks came largely from three of these captive herds. Today, the success of that effort is reflected in over 75,000 bison now roaming both public and private lands in the United States.

Buffalo life history

The bison is the largest land animal in North America. It normally lives 15-20 years but can live up to 40 years. Both cows and bulls have sharp, curved horns. Full growth is 2,000 pounds or more for a bull and 1,300 pounds for a cow, which is attained by 7-8 years of age. A deceptively quick and agile animal, the bison can gallop up to 35 mph over rough terrain. The bison is extremely hardy and can survive extreme weather conditions where other large animals would perish. The breeding season is in July and August. Their gestation period (pregnancy varies from 270 to 285 days, with most calves being born in May. Normally, a cow will give birth to a single calf, but on rare occasions will have twins. Calves vary in color from red to cinnamon at birth and show no sign of the characteristic hump until about two months of age. The bison begin to shed their heavy winter coats in the spring. To hasten the shedding and relieve itching, they often rub against large stones and trees. Travelers in the 1880's wrote of seeing highly polished stones and trees with the bark rubbed off six to seven feet above the ground. Without the protection of their coats, the animals are especially vulnerable to insect attack in the summer. To escape their tormentors, bison wallow in dust or sand. Early travelers on the plains wrote of buffalo wallows that were often a foot or more deep and 15 feet across. Similar wallows can be seen in the Sandhill bison range.

Care of the Sandhill bison herd

The Sandhill herd receives high quality hay during the winter plus a special mineral supplement. The herd is routinely de-wormed and the animals are moved from one pasture to the other to control internal parasites. A breeding bull from a different herd to improve genetic diversity periodically replaces the dominant breeding bull. This insures a much healthier herd. To prevent overgrazing, the Sandhill herd is culled annually. The reproductive capacity of the Sandhill herd averages 2-4 animals per year, so the herd is reduced by about this number each winter. The animals are auctioned off to individuals wanting to diversify the breeding stock of their own herd or to farms and ranches specializing in raising bison for commercial markets. Research has shown that bison meat contains more protein than beef, is non-allergenic and is very low in cholesterol. The money gained from these sales is returned to the DNR Fish and Wildlife Account, which is used to restore and protect valuable wildlife habitat throughout the state. This helps to prevent other wildlife species from taking the same dreadful path that the bison once took.

Bison habitat at Sandhill

Frequent visitors to Sandhill have probably noticed some recent changes to the bison area. Our main management goal for the bison pasture is to restore the area to a native oak savanna. An oak savanna is an open landscape dominated by prairie plants with scattered oak trees. Savannas along with prairies are among the rarest plant communities in Wisconsin. Today, oak savannas are rare along with the animals that use them. The endangered Karner blue butterfly is one such animal that is found in the bison pasture. Our habitat restoration efforts also benefit this small blue butterfly which depends on the wild lupine plant for nectar and a place to lay their eggs. The lupine plant has purple pea-like flowers that bloom May through July. The Karner blue butterfly requires large patches of this plant for its continued survival. Habitat restoration is very time-consuming and very costly. However, by creating an open savanna, we will increase the change of seeing bison in their native habitat, improve range conditions, provide educational opportunities for school groups and individuals, as well as provide a "home" for other rare species of wildlife including the Karner blue butterfly. Finally, we are undertaking this effort to conserve the most magnificent animal so symbolic of the early frontier. We have established a "gift account" for the Sandhill Wildlife Area. Money donated to this account goes directly to habitat restoration efforts. This money will be used for projects like the oak savanna restoration, which might not otherwise be possible. If you would like to make a contribution, please use the donation box in our office during normal business hours or contact us at the following address: Sandhill Wildlife Area, P.O. Box 156, Babcock, WI 54413-0156.

Last revised: Friday April 12 2013