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Bison Reinvigorate Lee County Prairie

Jim Browne/WGLT

Efforts to recreate the original grassland that once dominated Illinois are bearing fruit at the 3,100 acre Nachusa Grassland just minutes outside Dixon, one of the towns Ronald Reagan called home and a city known for its petunias.

Now, the Grasslands, founded less than a decade ago, reflect an Illinois from hundreds of years ago. And they are home to the first full-blooded bison in Illinois in more than 200 years.

ISU biologist Angelo Capparella, Nature Conservancy ecologist Cody Constantine, and Nachusa volunteer Kirk Hallowell are excited by the changes wrought by the bison, now in their second spring in their new home.

Among examples of a bison's digestive system at work, the trio finds a dung beetle.

There also are bright yellow, blue, and violet flowers growing untouched among the grass, which the bison have clipped to within a centimeter of the earth. 

Constantine says that's most unusual for most grazing animals, who tend to eat everything above the soil.  He says it's different for bison, because the huge animals are selective grazers and only eat the tasty green grass.

"There's places where you have little violets blooming, and literally the grass is trimmed around the violets,” he said, “(like) someone went in there with scissors and cut around the violets.  So, the initial things we're seeing on the land, on the ground is bison are acting like bison."

That's a key for recreating a diverse grassland because grasses take over, crowding out the other plants. Volunteers also help. They walk through the meadow, plucking invasive or non-indigenous plants. 

In addition to the adult bison at Nachusa, 18 calves were born this spring. Hallowell says he knows the herd’s typical hiding spots -- “little hills and valleys that they can get into” – so he takes the wheel of the old golf cart that's been pressed into service as a utility vehicle.

Capparella smiles wryly at a question about calling the animals buffalo instead of bison. “You can call them buffalo," he said, with a look that equates it with calling a desk a jet plane.  They are, he notes, North American Bison.

The golf cart continues through a wooded area where the brush was burned recently to provide room for May apples, jack-in-the-pulpits, and other woodland wildflowers. 

The golf cart tops a rise and the herd comes into view.

"Well, there we go,” Hallowell says. “That's a nice pattern that they're against a hill so we'll get a good look at them.” 

He instructs visitors to follow the sort of loose protocol for approaching a bison. “I find that, if we walk sort of tangentially toward the herd and not directly towards the herd, they get a little less anxious,” he says. 

The biggest male in the Nachusa herd is about 1,800 pounds, and the cows are usually about 12-Hundred pounds, he explains to underscore the need to avoid conflict.

Beyond a gentle dip in the land, the herd notices people approaching and one large male positions himself between them and the other bison.

Hallowell points out four calves lying down among the adults, “and they're staying pretty much with mom."

Capparella acknowledges the historic aspects of having real bison born in Illinois. “These are genetically pure,” he notes. “These are not the ones that were hybridized with cattle, so we're re-introducing true bison.”

He said the last American Bison in Illinois was killed in the early 1800s. “We're looking at an amazing occurrence to bring the American bison back to landscape-scale prairie is just … you read about it in the history books, but to actually see it, it's just hard to imagine. 

“I mean, this is what the first settlers would have seen,” Capparella marvels. “It's certainly what the Native Americans would have seen, and now we're seeing it again!"

The herd of bison, and the now 18 calves, are hogging a lot of the attention, but the huge grazers are just one part of an ecosystem that is coming back to life in Lee County.  Flying about the herd are cowbirds -- originally known as buffalo birds -- living off the insects the herd stirs up.

The dung is great fertilizer, and grazing also introduces micro bacteria and encourages native plants as well as animals -- including a rare Blandings Turtle. Prairie Smoke is a great example of a rare, beautiful flowering plant, and the name is a perfect description of its appearance. 

Capparella says Nachusa helps him feel optimistic about human interaction with nature. "It really shows that people can have a very positive relationship with the natural world."