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The Elk & Bison Prairie Story

The Elk & Bison Prairie Story

As adapted from a 1996 Elk & Bison Prairie brochure

Many generations of animals and people inhabited this region long before the forming of Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area in 1963.

The Elk & Bison Prairie captures the world as it appeared to 18th century hunters. At the time, more than 300 years ago, vast herds of bison and elk blanketed the landscape, creating broad paths in the land as they migrated. Today, we travel many of those same paths—Interstate 24, for example, follows the path of an ancient bison trail.

When native peoples used this land as hunting grounds, they periodically set fires knowing game would be drawn to the new grass.  This helped create a land in which grasses could thrive while the encroaching forest was kept at bay.

Early European travelers described us as the “barrens” because the land was mostly “barren” of trees.

Settlement changed this delicate balance. Bison and elk were nearly hunted out of existence; native peoples were forced to move. Absence of fire and grazing allowed oak and hickory trees to take over, crowding out the prairie grasses.

For the next 150 years, a woodland landscape dominated the region.

In the mid-1970s, biologists at Land Between The Lakes noticed small patches of native prairie grasses inside what is now the Elk & Bison Prairie. Setting carefully orchestrated “prescribed burns” over a period of years, the prairie grasses flourished. It was then decided to enclose the prairie and add elk, bison, and additional warm-season native grasses as a demonstration area of what once existed in this region.

In 1996, the Elk & Bison Prairie became official as a cooperative project brought about by the efforts and support of government, corporate and private groups, and individuals.

The three-mile loop of paved roadway offers visitors a glimpse of a rare landscape as it once served the native peoples by providing raw materials for food, shelter, clothing, tools, transportation, medicine, and more.


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