Elk & Bison Prairie reopens for big critter communion

The Land Between the Lakes’ Elk & Bison Prairie is a rare place where visitors can experience these large wildlife up close in their habitat.

Roger Miller wrote “You can’t roller-skate in a buffalo herd,” but occasionally you can negotiate through one in an enclosed vehicle in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

One of the most popular features in the U.S. Forest Service-managed LBL is the freshly reopened Elk & Bison Prairie along The Trace (Ky. 458) just north of the LBL’s Golden Pond Visitor Center. This drive-through wildlife viewing area has resident populations of both elk and bison, reflecting native populations of the big critters in the region at the time of early European-American settlement.

The Elk & Bison Prairie has been closed during the time of the general shutdown of facilities and attractions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the prairie shutdown lasted longer than the closure of many facilities because the closure was more than a viral public health issue.

The prairie’s human access is contingent on a 3.5-mile paved roadway loop along which visitors drive to view bison, elk and other native wildlife within the 700-acre, high-fenced enclosure. Wildlife including the big ruminants are free-ranging within the enclosure, so vehicles on the looping byway are both the means for people to access the prairie and its wildlife as well as the enclosures that make it possible for safe close encounters with hulking creatures.

Forest Service managers had the prairie area closed to allow repairs, including culvert replacement, on the winding roadway through it. After completion of necessary repairs, the route — and the enclosure — was reopened to visitors last week.

The prairie is open to visitors from dawn until dusk every day. Entry is $5 per vehicle, which is payable through an automated gate. One-time entry cards or discounted multiple-visit cards are available for purchase at the Golden Pond Visitor Center, north and south welcome stations and other day-use areas.

Pedestrians are prohibited along the prairie loop for what should be obvious reasons. Bison and elk within the area are not tame, and they always have the right of way. Visitors in vehicles sometimes encounter herds of numerous buffalo along the roadway, and critter roadblocks sometimes hold up traffic for periods.

Visitors in vehicles sometimes find themselves fender-to-shoulder with bison in circumstances that could be highly dangerous for humans on foot. That would go for roller-skaters, too.

For the same obvious safety reasons, visitors on motorcycles or bicycles are likewise prohibited. You just cannot safely have direct exposure to unpredictable wild creatures that may weigh up to a ton or more.

There are stops with informational signage along the route at which loop travelers may want to stretch their legs and even observe elk and bison from a distance. When large animals are nearby, however, visitors are implored to stay within their vehicle and watch from positions of safety.

Both bison and elk mothers have recently born calves this time of year. Both species can be highly protective of their young, and any approaches of these wild babes by humans could be met with brutal force.

Again, the prairie wildlife area is nothing like a petting zoo. Treating it as such raises the possibility of serious injury or worse.

With summer setting in with typical heat, many varieties of wildlife curtail some of their activities in the hottest parts of the day. When the sun is bearing down, both elk and bison tend to minimize their activities in the open grasslands of the prairie. During these times, the big animals are more likely to be chilling in the shade of timbered areas.

It’s a year-round thing, but visitors in summer weather are especially encouraged to time their prairie loop travels to the early morning hours and the late evenings. Sunrise tours and those of near sunset in late evenings always will tend to put visitors out there when elk, bison and other resident wildlife are more active.

See the website www.landbetweenthelakes.us for more information.

Since the June 11 reopening of Kentucky state park campgrounds, closed previously as COVID 19 pandemic precaution, restrictions continue to loosen albeit slowly.

Tent and pop-up camper units again are being allowed unlike the initial prohibition upon reopening.

Important to all visitors, campground bathhouses/restrooms have reopened. This was a factor in allowing tent and pop-up campers that lack their own self-contained bathroom facilities.

Instead of a flat prohibition of additional visitors at campsites, restrictions have been relaxed to allow a maximum of two visitors in addition to guests per campsite.

Playgrounds, beaches and pools at state park campgrounds remain closed, say Kentucky officials. CDC guidelines and social distancing should be practiced in campgrounds, state officials contend.

June 19 was the last day of Kentucky’s spring squirrel hunting season, concluding a five-week season that began May 16.

The closure leaves Kentuckians no recourse in small game hunting until the traditional “fall” season for squirrels begins on Aug. 15. This marathon season opens each year on the third Saturday in August and runs through the remainder of summer, through autumn and deep into the winter, ending finally Feb. 28.

Meanwhile, the only continuing official season for taking game is Kentucky’s bullfrog season. Based on the means of harvest, the frogging pursuit can be considered a hunting season (by using gun, archery or gig), a fishing season (by using pole and line) or whatever it is when you merely grab the leggy amphibian by hand.

The bullfrog season opened May 15 and runs through Oct. 31.

Steve Vantreese is a freelance outdoors writer. Email outdoors news items to outdoors@paducahsun.com or phone 270-575-8650.