Where the Buffalo Roam — in Missouri

Prairie State Park in Liberal, MO is a 3,700-acre spread of southwest Missouri land where a lost heritage is recaptured and a rare ecosystem preserved. Open year-round.

Kevin Badgley is convinced he has the best office view around in Liberal, Mo. From his window, he can watch bison grazing amid tall grasses and wildflowers on a sun-washed prairie.

"Those marks right there are from the bison," says Badgley, pointing to several smudges of milky goo. "They will come up and press their noses against the glass. They'll lick it, too. They're a very curious animal."

Badgley is acting superintendent of Prairie State Park in Liberal, a 3,700-acre spread of southwest Missouri land where a lost heritage is recaptured and a rare ecosystem preserved.

The park's landscape is forever changing. Spring bouquets of purple violets and red Indian paintbrush give way in midsummer to yellow coreopsis and pale purple coneflowers.

By fall, grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass and slough grass reach well over Badgley's 6-foot-5 body.

Nesting in the prairie carpet are a variety of colorfully named birds –dickcissel (a type of bunting), greater prairie chicken, grasshopper sparrow and sedge wren.

And it's one of the few places where bison roam free.

"We move the bison where they want to go," jokes Badgley, noting that a bull (male) can weigh 2,000 pounds.

One-third of Missouri — about 13 million acres — was covered by tallgrass prairie before settlers arrived. Agriculture and human development have reduced it over time to about 65,000 acres, with most of it in small bits and pieces, according to Badgley.

Prairie State Park is now the state's largest tract of tallgrass prairie. It was opened in 1982 and is administered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Most of the park's soil is too rocky to plow, so it was used by previous owners for grazing or haying. It's one of the reasons such a large tract of high-quality, unplowed prairie was left in pristine condition, says Randy Haas, private land conservationist with Missouri Department of Conservation.

"So there's something good to say about rocks," says Haas, who helps landowners manage private prairie land and volunteers at the park as needed.

Visitors are amazed by the diversity of flora and fauna at the park, Haas says. It's home to more than 200 species of native wildflowers, 140 birds, 22 mammals, 23 reptiles and countless insects. At least 25 plant and animal species are listed as rare or endangered.

"The world is so fast-paced that it's easy for people to go through life and not notice things," Haas says. "It's one of the few places where you can go and see prairie in any direction with very few trees."

And you can go any time you want and stay as long as you like, because Prairie State Park is open around-the-clock all year.

"We want people to experience the prairie as it once was and to learn about it," Badgley says. "It's one of the ways we can preserve what little bit of prairie there is left in Missouri."

About 54,000 people visited the park last year. It attracts hikers and birdwatchers, biologists and environmentalists, and travelers from near and abroad.

"We get a lot of travelers from Europe and Asia," Badgley says. "They don't have this sort of openness. Prairie landscape is actually very rare."

The park's wildlife also is rare. There are 76 bison in the herd. Visitors are asked to check a sign outside the park's visitor center to see where they are located.

"They're a flight animal, so they will flee the area if you get too close," Badgley says. "We still suggest people stay back at least 100 yards for a safe cushion.

They're a very curious animal, and they want to know what's in their space. We've never had any problems with them really bothering anyone."

But he warns that if one raises its tails — and it's not going to the bathroom — it's time to slowly back away because the animal is getting nervous.

Bison and elk were reintroduced at the park to help replicate natural grazing, Badgley says.

"They manage the prairie by their diets," he says. "We want to get the prairie back to what it was in pre-settlement times. The bison are the native herbivores."

Park staff uses controlled burns to preserve the prairie. Fire prevents the invasion of brush and trees, and recycles nutrients back into the soil, Badgley says. It also helps renew the native grasses and flowers — making for a colorful landscape.

More than 12 miles of mowed grass trails wind through the park. It's best to walk early in the morning or late in the evening, when animals are most active, Badgley says.

Visitors are asked not to interfere with wildlife or pick the flowers.

Badgley also reminds that there were no restrooms or water fountains on the native prairie. At the park, those amenities are available only at the visitors center — generally open Tuesday through Sunday, except January-March, when it's also closed on Tuesday.

In the visitors center are various educational displays, including what Badgley refers to as "pieces, parts and poop."

Its purpose is to demonstrate how Native Americans truly used every part of a slain bison.

Bison hair was woven into belts and bracelets; the bladder was dried and used as a water pouch; leg bones were fashioned into scrapers. Dried bison droppings were used as diapers because they created a sponge-like effect when remoistened, Badgley says.

And you won't see that just anywhere.

"There's very few places like this left," Badgley says. "It really is like stepping back in time."

If you go:

Getting there:
The park is at 128 NW 150th Lane, Liberal, Mo 64762. It is 16 miles west of Lamar, off Hwy. 160, north on Hwy NN to Central Road in Barton County.

Park Hours:
The park grounds are open from sunrise to sunset year-round.

Winter hours (off-season):
From January through March, the visitor center and park office are open Wednesday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Summer hours (on-season):
From April through December, the visitor center and park office are open Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

More information:
Phone: (417) 843-6711
Web site: Missouri State Parks
Email: moparks@mail.dnr.state.mo.us

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