How Illinois Got Its Bison Back

by | October 9, 2014 AT 7:05 PM

By Ted Gregory

The hulking animals that stepped from trailers to corrals here late at night drew a hushed, attentive audience of about 25 people.

The reason for the reverence: Wild bison have been reintroduced on the prairies east of the Mississippi River for the first time since the 1830s, says the conservation group coordinating the effort. The 20 animals will eventually be released from the corral to gradually roam much of the 3,500-acre Nachusa Grasslands _ the key part of an ambitious prairie restoration 95 miles west of Chicago.

"The word that keeps coming up is surreal," said Jeff Walk, director of science for the Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which owns Nachusa and has been readying the land for the bison since the late 1980s. He accompanied the 20 bison on an eight-hour truck trip from Broken Kettle Grasslands preserve near Sioux City, Iowa, to Nachusa last Friday.

"After all the work that people have put into this," Walk said, "it's like, 'Oh my gosh, it's actually happening.' "

The bison relocation is an effort to reunite the species with the most imperiled ecosystem on the planet so both can thrive. Some bison enthusiasts even hope the new oversized, shaggy residents of Nachusa, the largest restored prairie in Illinois, will spark an environmentally responsible agricultural movement in the state.

"If industry can adopt those practices," Matt Ruhter, president of the Illinois Indiana Bison Association said of placing bison on prairies, "then you'll get a lot of new prairies popping up and all the benefits that come along with having prairies."

Temperatures hovered in the low 40s and clouds had darkened the starry skies when the two semitrailers carrying the bison rolled to a stop at 10:17 p.m. Friday. Wind gusts prompted observers, many of whom were taking video, to bundle themselves in layers, hoods and hats.

The bison kept everyone waiting. Despite being prodded by broomsticks, encouraged by large rattles shaken at them and hooted at by their handlers, many of the animals refused to scoot through the open rear doorway of one trailer, down the enclosed ramp and through the chute to the corral. By 11:30 p.m., the crew assigned to make that entry happen had departed, allowing an estimated 10 animals to exit when they were ready.

Then the crew, Nachusa staff and volunteers gathered in a home across the road from the prairie, sipped beer and celebrated. On the table were plates of bison-shaped cookies and brownies.

Despite the somewhat rocky arrival, Nachusa volunteer Cindy Crosby said the moment was historic.

"This is tallgrass prairie in Illinois and this is the missing piece of the puzzle," said Crosby, who drove with her husband, Jeff, from Glen Ellyn to view the bison arrival. "More than 700 species (at Nachusa) but we didn't have the big piece, and tonight it's all going to change. Nothing is going to be the same as it was yesterday."

The animals' placement at Nachusa is the latest turn in a compelling story that started in 1985. That's when The Nature Conservancy sought large tracts of grasslands untouched by plows. The organization, considered the largest environmental nonprofit in the U.S., settled on land near Dixon and acquired its first 400 acres in 1986.

The goal was to acquire more land, restore it and pull all of it into a vast prairie in a state that has lost nearly all of its native landscape. While the conservancy added land to Nachusa, volunteers and staff conducted more than 105 prairie restorations.

People worked hundreds of thousands of hours _ an estimated 450,000 _ at the preserve, including years of harvesting native plant seeds. Last year's harvest gathered a record 6,500 pounds of seeds, conservancy spokeswoman Gelasia Croom said.

The conservation organization's claim that grasslands and prairies are "the world's most imperiled ecosystem" is based on the group's calculation that only 5 percent of grasslands are protected globally and remain "greatly threatened" by invasive species, suppression of natural fire and urbanization.

The status of native prairie in Illinois is even grimmer: Nearly 60 percent of the state, about 22 million acres, once was prairie, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources reports. Over the centuries, farms consumed much of it, leaving only 2,500 acres of prairie in Illinois today, the DNR states.

That's where bison, emerging from their own dreadful history, are expected to play a crucial role in saving and expanding the prairie. Typically referred to as buffalo _ a mix-up traced to the first North American explorers who noted the animals' resemblance to their genetic buffalo cousins in Asia and Africa _ upward of 60 million bison roamed North America when those early explorers arrived, experts say. But sport hunting and mass slaughter dropped that number to fewer than 1,000 by 1906, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Aggressive conservation efforts, started in large part by Theodore Roosevelt and zoologist William Temple Hornaday in the early 1900s, have brought the bison population up to 450,000, WCS reports. But fewer than 20,000 roam freely, and the vast majority of bison are domestic livestock.

The beasts that clomped into the specially made corral at Nachusa on Friday night are viewed as prairie saviors, not livestock.

"We want these animals to be as wild as possible," Nachusa Grasslands Project Director Bill Kleiman said. But five of the bison are fitted with GPS tracking devices and fencing has been erected along the edges of the prairie and the few public roads in Nachusa.

An iconic American animal and the largest mammal in North America, bison stand as tall as 6 feet at the shoulder, weigh up to a ton and can run 35 mph. They also are voracious grazers that prefer grassland, which opens prairies to native flowers and plants, Kleiman and others said. That scenario attracts wider varieties of insects, birds and other animals, helping the biodiversity of prairies.

"Bison were such a significant part of the prairie that whole ecosystems depended on them," said Brook McDonald, president and CEO of the Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit focused on preserving and restoring natural areas in northeast Illinois. "Without them, those species go too. "We can go around and do the small prairie restorations," McDonald added, "but a true native prairie ecosystem has to have bison in it."

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