More than holes in the ground: Buffalo wallows conjure Douglas County prairie’s majestic past

photo by: Lauren Fox

Haskell Indian Nations University biology professor Chuck Haines, left, and Lawrence resident Mike Moddrell kneel next to one of about a dozen buffalo wallows found on Moddrell's land in southwest Douglas County.

Mike Moddrell peered out over his rangeland — his tanned face shaded by a straw cowboy hat, his feet hidden in the tall grass.

“This is a true piece of prairie, right here,” Moddrell, 73, said atop a hill on his land in southwest Douglas County.

Butterfly milkweed, daisy fleabane, white prairie sage, spikerush — these are some of the diverse flora on the land that Moddrell considers as close to natural Kansas prairie “as you’ll get.”

Often, Moddrell will try to imagine his 320 acres of land without any trees — how it might have looked hundreds of years ago, he said. And sometimes, his imagination will cook up images of the awesome beasts that once roamed on it.

“You just look for a buffalo to come over the hill,” he said.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Mike Moddrell is pictured on his land in southwest Douglas County on June 16.

Hundreds of years ago, they did. The last free-roaming buffalo in Douglas County were estimated to have existed in the late 1820s to the 1830s, but their presence is still evidenced today by the depressions in Modrell’s land known as buffalo wallows.

Chuck Haines, a biology professor from Haskell Indian Nations University, joined the Journal-World recently to view the wallows on Moddrell’s land.

What is a buffalo wallow?

Buffalo wallows are depressions in land formed hundreds of years ago, when buffalo used to scrape the surface, roll and lie about.

Forming a wallow was a way for buffalo to shed their winter coats and protect against insect bites. By rolling around, a layer of dirt would form on the skin, serving as protection against insects. During mating season, buffalo would urinate in their wallows before rolling around to attract mates.

photo by: Lauren Fox

A buffalo wallow is pictured on Mike Moddrell’s land in southwest Douglas County on June 16.

Wallows typically ranged from 2 to 4 feet deep, Haines said, and could be anywhere from 6 feet to 75 feet across.

The ones on Moddrell’s land were on the lower end of the spectrum — about 6 to 8 feet across — and lacked depth.

“Just think of how this has filled in over 100-plus years. At one time, it was a deep one,” Moddrell supposed of one of the wallows on his land. “They would have had a ball in it.”

Haines said the wallows on Moddrell’s land are identifiable based on the compacted soil and sedge plants within. Sedge plants are commonly found in damp environments, like marshes, and have triangular stems. The compacted soil is evidence that the large animals — some males weighed over 3,000 pounds — had lain and wallowed on the spot.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Mike Moddrell, left, and Haskell Indian Nations University professor Chuck Haines, right, approach a buffalo wallow on Moddrell’s land in southwest Douglas County.

Typically, buffalo wallows hold rainwater. Prior to the formation of railroads, Haines said, travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails would not have survived without the buffalo-formed water holes. But when the Santa Fe Railway was created, wallows had to be filled in before construction — or travelers would have had a bumpy ride, Haines joked.

The wallows on Moddrell’s land at times hold water, but last week, after about a week and a half without rain, they were dry.

In one, a deer had recently passed through, evidenced by a footprint.

photo by: Lauren Fox

A deer track was present in one of the buffalo wallows on Mike Moddrell’s land on June 16.

‘There’s not very much of the prairie left in Douglas County’

When Moddrell purchased his land about 20 years ago, he noticed the buffalo wallows right away.

Moddrell grew up on a farm in Coleman, Mo., northeast of Peculiar, and “we had (buffalo wallows) clear over in Missouri,” he said. Growing up and working on farms, Moddrell said that farmers would typically avoid the wallows, but Moddrell remembered the one time a farmer neglected to do so — and got stuck.

Haines has seen numerous buffalo wallows in Douglas County, but he rarely sees them on prairie land. He called the flora on Moddrell’s land “really diverse” and frequently paused to examine and smell the plants.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Haskell Indian Nations University professor Chuck Haines said Mike Moddrell’s land has a diverse collection of Kansas prairie flora.

“You got the full range of wetland plants, prairie plants … You don’t find stuff like this too often,” Haines said. “There’s not very much of the prairie left in Douglas County.”

Moddrell typically allows cattle to graze on his land and plans to bring them back in July, but last week the view on Moddrell’s land was simply one of swaying grass and rolling hills — and the buffalo of imagination.


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