GARDEN CITY — Barely a mile south of Garden City, visitors from around the world have long visited a 5-square-mile plat of prairie where dozens of bison have roamed free for nearly a century.
But to some residents, even ones who have called southwest Kansas home for decades, the landmark often goes forgotten.
“I think there’s some local people that would be surprised to hear that it’s even here,” said Tom Norman, area manager of Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area. “(Some) locals either say they didn’t know there was a buffalo herd here, or maybe that, yeah, they’d heard about it but they’ve never visited it themselves and they’ve lived here their whole lives.”
Sandsage, established in 1924, is home to about 42 bison, plus a hodgepodge of other Kansas wildlife, from deer to pheasants to box turtles to rabbits, both jackrabbits and cottontail, Norman said. In the summer, the range’s grassland is teeming with technicolor wildflowers.
The range is not the only herd in the area — there are other refuges or grazing lands in Dodge City and Canton, as well. But Sandsage is meant to be a little different, Norman said. From scheduled to informal tours, he said, the relationship with guests is meant to be a little more personal.
The tours are intentionally informal and relaxed, memorized informative spiels traded out for a tourist-driven conversation and impromptu question-and-answer session, he said.
During the summer, staff will pull guests into the prairie on a large trailer for a handful of scheduled tours. But at any time of year, staff and volunteers will drive anyone out on their own for private reserved tours for either a $20 minimum or freewill donation, depending on the size of the group.
On the annual Bison and Blooms outing, a staff member will occasionally stop and let guests walk among the flowers, picking some and passing them around for everyone to smell. Staff will drive smaller tours right next to the herd, generally staying out as long as guests want to, Norman said. Guests can’t get out, but sometimes bison will walk close to the car, even rubbing against it.
“They’ll be pretty close to us. And that happens a lot of times,” Norman said.
The goal is to give people a good experience and a taste of an undeveloped Kansas, Norman said, but also to help them remember the importance of the creatures themselves.
Bison ranges like Sandsage are part of one of the “primary conservation success stories” that saved the species, Norman said. By the early 1900s, the worldwide bison population had dropped from 60 million to 500, and the animals became one of the first subjects of grassroots preservation efforts. They are a keystone species, he said, shaping the prairie with grazing habits and making it habitable for other smaller species. They were clearly vital to Native American culture and survival, and old journals reference herds along the Santa Fe Trail.
Forty to 80 million of them once blanketed the continent, and the plains of Kansas were covered with them, he said. In many ways, preserving bison is preserving what Kansas used to be.
“One of the founding purposes of this herd was the idea that bison were a major part of the history of this area. Prior to western European settlement, this would have been the heart of bison country in North America. It’s pretty hard not to see the importance of bison in history. That’s why I think it’s important people know about bison,” Norman said.
Tourists have come from “darn near every state” and every continent, save Antarctica, and all take an exit survey when they leave, Norman said. In five years, he doesn’t think he’s ever read a negative comment.
“Especially the local people, I think it’s important that they come out and utilize a resource that’s so close to home. I mean, we’re five minutes away. When they have family in town, friends in town, visitors, guests, I think it’s one of the neatest things around here to show people off what Garden City has to offer,” Norman said. “It’s a unique experience that people just can’t really get just anywhere.”