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Up close and personal: Nebraska couple telling, and showing, bison story to visitors

The Simmons family is one of a growing number of Sandhills ranchers raising bison, whose numbers continue to increase in Nebraska.
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Posted at 7:11 PM, Oct 13, 2023

NEAR VALENTINE — It’s their low, rumbling bellow that first cuts through the peaceful quiet of the Sandhills.

Next, comes the crunch of their pointed hooves, trudging their way through the tall prairie grasses.

Then, the oohs and aahs of the out-of-towners looking on, up close and personal with the majestic thousand-pound mammals for the first time.

This is Golden Prairie Bison, a ranch nestled here in the Sandhills where Carl and Vicki Simmons raise a herd of roughly 50 bison. Theirs is one of the dozens of bison ranches in Nebraska, one piece of the ongoing effort to rebuild North America’s once-decimated bison population.

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The Simmons’ bison herd, traveling together in a pasture near Valentine. The Simmons family has ranched here since 1914, but the bison are a recent addition – and an ecotourism business started by the family is brand new. Photo by Phil and Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

The Simmons’ herd is small compared to large-scale operations like Turner Ranches – the driving force behind Nebraska ranking No. 2 for bison nationally.

But to Carl and Vicki, the herd isn’t about size or money. It’s about the bison’s inseparable tie to Nebraska’s grasslands, and the oft-forgotten importance of those grasslands. And as one of the growing number of ranchers integrating tourism into their operation, it’s a story they’re telling one visitor at a time.

“(The bison and the prairie) belong together,” Carl said. “The bison population has gone through booms and busts. There have been droughts and catastrophes that have caused their numbers to go up and down. But the one constant has been the native prairie.”

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Out on the golden prairie, a bison chomps away on grasses. Grazing bison help the prairie flourish. Their hooves till the soil, and their dust baths create “wallows,” shallow dips that collect water and offer new habitat for plants and bugs. Photo by Phil and Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

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It was Carl’s cousin’s husband who was first intrigued by bison.

Don’t call them buffalo – bison have bigger humps and heads and shorter horns. The two species live on different continents, too.

He talked to Carl, a third-generation cattle rancher, about buying one of the beasts. It had been a bad year for cattle prices. Carl thought, why not?

He started with five calves bought from Custer State Park in 1997.

He thought the burly animals were fun. They had personalities, running at groups of unexpecting cattle and scaring them, seeming to look back at each other and laugh. There was no business plan for these bison, Carl said. It was, at least initially, just a hobby.

So, the herd started to grow. Carl acquired five more calves from North Dakota. He bought a bull from the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge up the road from his ranch.

One year, Vicki learned from a radio announcement that Carl was the top bison buyer at the refuge’s auction that day. She didn’t mind.

“We were just as infatuated with them as Carl,” she said. “I think they kind of get under your skin and grow on you.”

They started to share that fascination with family and friends, driving them out to see the massive animals.

Then, they thought, what if we shared this with even more people?

During a Zoom call in the early days of the pandemic, Carl and Vicki floated the idea by their four kids: What if we turned our bison hobby into a tourism business?

The kids, scattered across different states, were on board and ready to help. They built a website and wrote the text. One filmed a video, while another helped them complete paperwork and legal forms.

Now, a few times a week, Carl and Vicki pile small groups of Sandhills tourists into a 23-year-old Ford Excursion, driving off to share their herd of 50 bison.

Vicki dons heavy gloves to undo the barbed wire fence containing the herd. Carl lurches the SUV over the hilly prairie.

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Vicki Simmons opens the barbed wire gate that contains the herd of 50 bison at Golden Prairie Bison. She and her husband Carl Simmons give tours to Sandhills visitors wanting to see the large animals up close. Photo by Phil and Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

But before visitors can see the bison, they have to listen to Carl tell a story. A story about grass.

He plucks tall stalks and flowering forbs, naming them, describing their root patterns. Yellow sunflower and goldenrod. Purple dotted gayfeather. Velvety white sagebrush, feathery switchgrass.

The grasses and rich soil have the power to sequester carbon, he tells visitors, affecting the atmosphere and weather. Grazing bison help the prairie flourish. Their hooves till the soil, and their dust baths create “wallows,” shallow dips that collect water and offer new habitat for plants and bugs.

The Nebraska Sandhills are the world’s most intact prairie, Carl says, helping with air and water quality, protecting species of bugs and birds from extinction, and mitigating wildfires and floods.

And they’re disappearing, being replaced by farmland and development.

“There’s a story to be told,” Carl said. “The story of this area – the history, the geology, the land, the people. But there’s also this story of the prairie, and how it’s an integral part of us…it needs to be out there that the prairie is important. We charge money, but that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to tell the story.”

Then, it’s time to find the herd. Sometimes, Carl pulls out a drone to find where they’re gathered on the ranch. 

But other times, the bison – big, brown splotches on the golden prairie – come lumbering up on their own, their furry humps popping out from the grass.

The hulking masses of deep brown curls poke their shiny noses toward the windows of the Ford, sticking out their long tongues to get pellets of cake to snack on. The calves, with their fluffy red fur, stick close to their mothers.

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A bison sticks out its long tongue to snag pellets from Carl Simmons’ outstretched hand. The Simmons family bought its first bison 26 years ago. They now own 50 and have built a bison tourism business around their herd. Photo by Phil and Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

They sniff around the car of newcomers, nuzzling the ground for the tastiest pieces of grass.

Carl and Vicki have shared the bison and the story of the grasslands with fellow ranchers who want to compare bison to raising cattle. With campers from Colorado, who are escaping the crowds of Rocky Mountain National Park.

There was the couple from Chicago, both doctors taking a break from the city and camping at one of the four sites on the Simmons’ ranch listed on the website HipCamp.

“I’ve read about the healing aspect of nature,” one of them told Vicki. “But I’ve never experienced it until now.”

Then there was the family pulled out of international work because of the pandemic, whose kids went from being miserable on a camping trip to being fascinated by the bison and not wanting to leave.

And the group of middle school girls from a nearby reservation, on a trip with their school’s science club. They knew their tribe’s history with bison. But the girls had never seen one in real life.

“They looked at me, and they said, ‘Do you think they can tell we’re Native? Can they tell that we have this deep connection?’” Vicki said.

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A bison poses for its close up on Carl and Vicki Simmons’ ranch outside of Valentine. The pair have grown their herd to 50, and started an agritourism business taking visitors out on the prairie. Photo by Phil and Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

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Millions of bison once roamed and grazed across North America, according to the National Park Service. Uncontrolled hunting started pushing their numbers down during the 19th century.

By the 1860s, the U.S. government was encouraging the slaughter of bison to intentionally harm the Native tribes of the Plains.

It worked: There were only 325 bison left in the country by 1884.

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Standing among its herd, a bison peeks toward its visitors. Through their agritourism business Golden Prairie Bison, Carl and Vicki Simmons drive tourists out to see their herd. Photo by Phil and Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

Conservation efforts since the early 1900s have helped rebuild the bison population. Herds of bison now roam the plains of national parks and wildlife refuges, like Fort Niobrara in the Sandhills and Crane Trust in Hall County. There’s also been a push to restore bison on tribal lands throughout the Great Plains.

Ranchers like Carl have also leaned into bison. From 2012 to 2017, the number of bison in Nebraska grew from 23,152 to 28,047.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2022 census has yet to be released. But experts and monthly USDA reports suggest that the number of Nebraska bison continues to increase.

“I’m confident that the bison numbers are up,” said Jim Matheson, executive director of the National Bison Association. “We’re processing about 10% more bison than we were a year ago in 2022. 2022 was up 8% compared to the year before...based on our economic performance, we think there are more animals out there on the ground.”

It might not make sense for increased bison consumption to tie to efforts to grow the number of bison. But with about 90% of bison being on private land as livestock, ranchers are an essential part of conservation, Matheson said.

“We call it commerce by conservation...every bison counts,” Matheson said. “Through selling the end product – the meat, the fiber – we are in turn creating an economic incentive for property owners to have bison on their land.”

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Carl and Vicki Simmons share a glass of wine together as the sun sets over their Sandhills ranch. Carl bought his first bison in 1997. The pair started taking friends out onto the prairie to see the growing herd. In 2020, they turned that into a business. Photo by Phil and Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

For Carl and Vicki, financial stability comes from cattle ranching. They’re selling their bison meat on a small scale. Their tours are small – and they want to keep it that way.

This summer, they started averaging about two tours a week, Vicki said. On Labor Day weekend, they had four tours in one day. They only just recently started having to turn people away because they didn’t have time to give more tours.

They’ve heard of ranches that do big tours, piling dozens of people into open air buses and talking about bison herds on a loudspeaker.

Carl’s family has ranched this land since 1914. A bus tour is the last thing he wants.

“What we want is something that’s personal, where we can meet each person that comes,” he said. “There are lots of special places. But this is really a special flyover place. Even though it’s not these great grandeur mountains and lakes…(grasslands) are a unique thing. People start to understand that there are unique things everywhere. And it’s worth our attention.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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