Richard Duff first became fascinated with Native American history in high school, with the help of a teacher whose lessons about the Sand Creek massacre during the Civil War and the Plains Indian Wars caught Duff’s attention.
He learned more about the Native Americans, including the fact that Chief Black Kettle, a prominent leader of the Southern Cheyenne, camped near the site that is now Duff’s home on his way to Sand Creek in Colorado.
“Bison were a big part of the history of the Plains Indians, they had such a reliance on the bison and so I became interested in them, too,” he said. “There was a guy in Scott City who had three head in a corral and I would park on the side of the road and just sit there and watch them. I was fascinated watching them walk around, and I fell in love with them.”
That interest and growing up in a ranching family near Scott City led him to buy his first few bison in 1973. Eventually Duff’s father became interested and by the 1990s the family’s cattle ranch had completely converted to bison. Duff Buffalo Ranch’s mission is to raise and develop a sustainable, naturally healthy herd of bison. They sell quality, affordable produce while preserving “the sanctity of the beautiful and historical grasslands of the high plains of Western Kansas; the original pathway of the native tribes.”
That was uncommon in Kansas at the time, Duff said. “We learned a lot of stuff the hard way,” he added.
In the 1980s, he and his wife Susan started to do tours of Duff Buffalo Ranch with staff and faculty at the University of Kansas. Those tours eventually grew into offering the general public a chance to see the operation.
We visited the ranch, about 18 miles north of Scott City just off Highway 83, in mid-July and took a 45 minute tour in Richard’s truck. The land is close to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and has interesting formations and ravines as you drive out to meet the bison herd that numbered about 300 this summer. We saw many of the 140 calves born in the weeks leading up to our visit. They were easy to spot by their red color.
Many of the bison grazed on buffalo grass as we drove around, while others climbed on the orange rock formations that looked like fossilized coral protruding from the earth.
Not far from the ranch, the Duffs keep about a dozen light colored bison for viewing just outside the entrance to Lake Scott State Park.
The bison have access to about 4,000 acres on multiple pastures between the privately owned rangeland and state park land. About four years ago, Duff worked with the landowners to protect the native grasslands.
“They agreed to enter into a conservation easement, which means this land can never be farmed, there will be no more oil production, no windmills. So 300 years from now, this land should look just the same.”
The Duffs offer tours from May through October and they must be scheduled in advance. They appreciate at least three days’ notice and are happy to customize the tours to your interests. Visit duffsbuffaloranch.com for more details. Duff Buffalo Ranch also is part of a historic tour offered by Scott City’s El Quartelejo Museum & Jerry Thomas Art Gallery (elquartelejomuseum.org), with several stops along the Western Vistas Historic Byway.
From western lands to the centralized tallgrass prairie to northeast ranches, Kansas offers a variety of places for the general public to see bison grazing freely.
While some are open for self-guided drives or hikes, you’ll have a better chance of seeing the bison and safely getting closer for photographs if you schedule a guided tour.
Here’s a look at my experiences on two other Kansas tours this year.
While in western Kansas in July, we also visited the herd at Sandsage Bison Range & Wildlife Area near Garden City. They are not scheduling tours currently due to COVID, but keep an eye on the Friends of Sandsage Bison Range website (fosbrgc.wixsite.com/fosbr) or Facebook page (facebook.com/friendsofsandsage) for updates.
Small groups are taken out in an SUV while larger groups go on a trailer. You’ll experience one of the few tracts of native sandsage prairie not converted to irrigated cropland and a bison herd of about 60. Bison were reintroduced on the 3,670-acre refuge in 1924, making it the first publicly owned bison herd in the state.
In May, we signed up for the Baby Bison Spectacular tour at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton, about 60 miles north of Wichita.
The refuge is operated by the state while the nonprofit Friends of Maxwell group runs tours. We had attempted previously to visit on our own and see some of the 200+ bison along the 2.5-mile road through the refuge. We were not able to see any very close, but on the guided tour, our tram was surrounded by hundreds of bison.
An on-board volunteer talks about the history of the Smoky Hills ranch, the prairie and the herd. They also answer questions along the bumpy ride into the prairie, where a truck goes out ahead of the tram to drop feed that encourages the bison to stay close.
They have several of these tours themed around babies and wildflowers in the spring and the fall. They sell out quickly so check the online schedule at maxwellwildliferefuge.com and plan ahead. You can also get a similar experience on one of the 45-minute public tram tours. If you also want to see elk, plan to visit November through March.
More Kansas options
Guided tours via a bus are still paused at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (nps.gov/tapr) near Strong City in the heart of the Flint Hills. For a chance to see the herd of about 100 bison, you’ll need to hike at least a portion of the Scenic Overlook Trail that cuts through the Windmill Pasture. It is nearly 1,100 acres so you might not have a sighting but you’ll still get to experience the tallgrass. The 3-mile trail (one way) starts about a half-mile from the parking lot at the visitor center; you can turn around at any point or make the hike longer by connecting to backcountry trails. Remember it’s safer to not walk across cattle guards and instead use the gates when crossing between pastures. The preserve doesn’t charge admission.
Several private ranches in the glaciated region of northeast Kansas offer tours if scheduled in advance.
Ed and Susan Dillinger of Westmoreland give tours of their Lazy Heart D Bison Ranch (https://lazyheartdranch.weebly.com/), about 10 miles north of Wamego. You might get to feed a bison, and the drive also goes by the original building site of Wamego’s Dutch Mill.
During warm weather, you can tour the family operated Plumlee Buffalo Ranch (http://www.plumleeranch.com/) about 10 miles south of Wamego not far off I-70. Larry and Shirley Plumlee’s guided tours on four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicles will get you up close to the bison, which are all raised from calves, and you’ll also learn about the history of the ranch and the Flint Hills.
Bison beyond Kansas
Here are a few regional places to see bison, beyond the Kansas border:
- Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, near Pawhuska just south of the Kansas border, Nature Conservancy property with a free drive through a 25,000-acre pasture with about 1,700 bison
- Woolaroc, near Bartlesville and not far from the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, 200 bison roaming freely on 3,700 acres mostly visible along the 2-mile drive into the preserve after the admission gate
- Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, near Medicine Park in southwestern Oklahoma, free-roaming herd of nearly 700 bison and no admission fee
- Prairie State Park, just over the border from Pittsburg, Kansas, in southwestern Missouri, about 100 bison graze freely at this no-fee park
- Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, near Valentine in the far northcentral part of the state, 350 bison sometimes visible along the free 3.5-mile wildlife drive
- Caprock Canyons State Park, near Quitaque in the Texas Panhandle, home to the Texas State Bison Herd, nearly 200 free-roaming bison including descendants of the animals from the ranch of Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight, who are credited with helping save the species from extinction
- Custer State Park, in the southwestern part of the state, 1,400+ bison grazing among 71,000 acres, sometimes visible along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway, two-hour guided Buffalo Safaris offered and Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival is Sept. 23-25
- Badlands National Park, near Wall in the western half of the state, 1,200-head regularly seen near the roads in the wilderness areas
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near the town of Medora in the western part of the state, about 700 bison between the park’s North and South units