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The Tall Grass Prairie in the Flint Hills, Kansas

Updated on December 22, 2010

The Tall Grass Prairie

As the name indicates, the Tall Grass Prairie is an ecosystem with particularly high prairie grasses.

During our visit in early July, the grass was about one foot high, but by the end of August it can grow up to nine feet or 2.70 m high ! The more rain there is during the rain season, the higher the grass will grow. In October the grass falls down, degenerates and becomes food for the soil and the roots, so that it can grow again, after the winter.

This prairie used to cover almost the entire central part of North America. The formation of the region goes back to the Permian era, some 250 million years ago. After the rise of the Rocky Mountains and the expansion of the interior, the latter was covered by a vast inland sea. Deep layers of limestone were deposited, which in turn were covered by layers of sand.

After the inland sea dried up, there remained an immense plain, on which gradually these high grasses grew. They in turn became a rich breeding ground for the estimated eighty million buffalo's, the Indians who hunted them, and other species, who followed the buffalo's !

Cattle Raising

During and after the colonization, only few settlers and farmers remained in this region, since the soil is too steep and too rocky for farming. The layer of fertile ground over the limestone is too thin to allow plowing.

Therefore, agriculture is mainly concentrated in the west of Kansas. Nevertheless, the limestone holds far more moisture from rainwater, and this region is therefore ideal for cattle raising.

In 1880, Stephen F. Jones, a successful cattle-baron, built the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch. It consisted of an 11-room mansion, a massive barn in three levels, a small one-classroom school, and an ice cellar. A well was discovered on top of the hill.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

In 1994 the ranch was purchased by a private group, the National Park Trust . They seek to manage endangered natural resources and to preserve them for posterity. The group bought (or received - this is unclear ) an 11,000-acre surface of land from a Mr. Bass, a wealthy Texas cattle baron. They immediately went to work to preserve the very last surface of Tall Grass Prairie !

The preservation contains more than 450 plant species, 150 bird species, 39 reptile and amphibian species, and 31 animal species.

The panoramic views over the rolling hills are simply stunning, and the eye is virtually uninhibited by shrubs or trees.

Every four years just about the entire surface is burned , which not only nourishes the soil, but also eliminates imported shrubs and trees, which otherwise would overgrow the original flora.

The original prairie also used to burn regularly by lightning. The Indians observed that after such prairie fires, the buffalos appeared in larger numbers to feed from the fresh young shoots of grass. They also brought with them other animals, such as the black bear, antelope, cougar and wolf. Since the Indian's life cycle was completely based on the buffalo, they started setting the prairie on fire themselves...

After the state was opened to colonization, almost half of the land belonged to the federal government and the railroad. Even to date, that relation has not changed much. Half of the land is locally owned, but the other half still belongs to owners from out of state.

There is still a big herd of cattle on the preservation, with Hereford, Black Angus and Charolais cattle. We couldn't find any Texas Longhorns, but these can surely be found somewhere along the road !

*** Read about our visit to Kansas and the Flint Hills ***


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