June 25, 2015, 7:19 PM
Back in brown: American bison return to the Midwest
FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill – What used to be a corn and soybean field 15 years ago is now full of tall grass and flowers — a restoration in the making.
Jeff Walk is science director for the Illinois chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a private organization that is trying to bring the prairie back to the Land of Lincoln.
Walk and his group are seeding 1,500 acres with natural grasses and plants: from wild lupine to prairie smoke to golden Alexanders.
The goal is to restore the rolling hills to the way they looked 200 years ago or more. In the process, they’re adding one more, rather hairy ingredient to the mix: The American bison.
“The last wild bison in Illinois was killed about 200 years ago,” said Walk.
The bison serve an important purpose here. Kind of like landscapers, they maintain the prairie by eating the grass like furry lawnmowers that swallow what they cut.
“They’re doing great,” said Walk. “They cope very well. They seem to be peaceful, content.”
They were trucked to Illinois’ Nachusa prairie from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, as well as other preserves. About 50 are on the land now can move freely around 1,500 acres.
Bison are much easier than cattle for this job. They don’t need a barn, don’t need to be fed and are hardy as all get out — needing only one medical exam every year.
The hope is to have a herd of 125 in the future.
“They are just iconic Americana,” says Jeff.
So give me a home where the buffalo roam — just two hours west of Chicago.
Bison babies make more history
Jeannine Otto, Field Editor
Friday, June 12, 2015 2:00 PM
FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill. — The arrival of the first wild bison calf born east of the Mississippi River in close to 200 years didn’t cause much of a stir.
It was the discovery of that calf that was a surprise to the staff at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands prairie near Franklin Grove.
“The first one was definitely a surprise,” said Cody Considine, restoration ecologist at Nachusa.
In fact, it wasn’t even a staff member who got the first look.
“It was the first week in April, and Bill Kleiman had some friends visiting in town. They were looking around, and his friend said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a little one,’” Considine said.
After taking a look through binoculars, Kleiman confirmed that the first of the grasslands herd’s new members had arrived.
“That one was about two to three weeks ahead of the other ones,” Considine said.
The new calves for the herd, introduced to the restored Illinois prairie, now stand at 14. The herd numbers 30 adults with 18 mature cows, and Considine said that means they could see more new arrivals.
The bison and their babies don’t get any assists from human hands, even when calving.
“It’s all hands-off. Even if there was trouble, you have to let nature take its course. It’s natural selection,” Considine said.
But so far, there haven’t been any problems.
“Everybody seems happy and healthy,” Considine said.
That includes the prairie itself.
“The whole reason why bison were brought to Nachusa is for the role they play in the tallgrass prairie,” Considine said.
Since the bison have been munching their way around the 500 acres they’re confined to now, with an additional 1,000 acres scheduled to be opened to them later this summer or in the fall, Considine and researchers have watched how bison affect the prairie.
The word “amazing” comes up more than once in describing how the bison, mature cows weigh from 800 to 1,100 pounds and mature bulls can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, delicately eat their way around the prairie.
“We’ve got a place where we had some rare violets blooming, and they’ve gone under the violet or around it and grazed the grass around it. That’s pretty incredible. That’s the proof in the pudding — they are doing what we brought them here to do, and that’s to eat the grass,” Considine said.
He and others gather data using fenced-off control areas, called “exclosures,” to record how bison impact the prairie. Three of the exclosures include remnant prairie — prairie that has never been plowed.
The total acreage of Nachusa is some 3,500 acres, and Considine said staff is exploring how many bison the acreage could support.
“We think we could support 100 to 120 animals. However, there’s no literature or anything on how much native tallgrass prairie east of the Mississippi River can support, so this is all new exploration. We’re doing a lot of monitoring, a lot of research. We’re going to let the land tell us how many animals it can support,” he said.
Considine said the bison have weathered the rainy and severe spring weather well.
“Some of those tornadoes came through pretty close and we had large hail and it didn’t seem to bother them at all,” he said.
Right now, the adult bison are looking a little scruffy as they shed their winter coats. Even that activity is contributing to the ecosystem of the prairie — and helping fellow mammals grow their own families.
“Our crew got a photo of mice using the bison hair as a nest … It’s great for nesting material for mice and small mammals,” Considine said.
The increase in small mammals on the prairie — including some species of mice that only inhabit prairie — means other species thrive, too.
“There are a lot of small mammals on the prairie, and increasing those populations helps increase other animals, badgers, raptors — it’s one of the benefits of more food,” Considine said.
This fall, the bison herd will be moved into the corral system where they will get an annual health check and vaccinations, one of the few times they interact directly with humans.
The staff also is in the preliminary stages of building visitor areas, including one with a viewing platform, trails, restrooms and parking. Considine said plans are in the works for pull-off areas alongside the prairie.
The bison’s arrival has created a media sensation. Considine said staff has hosted or will host media from Chicago to national media, including the CBS Evening News, to global media, Al Jazeera, to talk about the reintroduction of the bison to the restored Illinois prairie.
For now, it’s up to the bison whether or not it’s time for a close-up with their fans.
“It depends. Yesterday they were right next to the road. This morning, you can’t see them. It really depends on where they want to be,” Considine said.