Bison Reintroduced to the Illinois Prairie

by Tiffany Mucci

A monumental and long-awaited phase in the restoration efforts at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was realized last month with the reintroduction of a small herd of American bison.  Midewin spans a 19,000-acre piece of land located just south of Joliet, making it the largest contiguous protected open space in the Chicagoland area.  The park’s size also makes it a suitable home for beasts such as bison.

Bison were reintroduced to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in October 2015 (source: U.S. Forest Service)

Bison were reintroduced to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in October 2015 (source: U.S. Forest Service)

Restoration efforts began in the 1990s when the land was designated to the U.S. Forest Service.  Prior to this, the area (which reaches beyond the borders of Midewin) was known as the Joliet Army Ammunitions Plant, and was the site of an extensive Superfund cleanup following its closure.  The thought of bison roaming these pastures once again was almost unfathomable a few decades ago.

The bison were gradually acclimated to their new home.  According to “The Bison Project” on Midewin’s website, four young bulls were first brought from Colorado to the Prairie on October 14th; shortly after, twenty-three females were transported from a ranch in South Dakota.  The Project reports that the bison were corralled and monitored until October 23rd, when the herd was released to the 1,200-acre fenced-in pasture awaiting them.

The staff at Midewin also note that the herd and their assigned pasture have an experimental part in the Prairie’s restoration program, in that they will provide data over the next twenty years regarding the role of bison in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.  This quote from the bison introduction update on the Midewin website’s homepage explains:

In keeping with the Midewin Prairie Plan, the experiment will provide information on how bison improve the diversity of native vegetation on restored prairies, compared to similar prairie restoration sites without bison. Midewin staff will also monitor how bison grazing on restored prairie provides suitable habitat for a suite of grassland birds. The bison introduction effort is a partnership between the National Forest Foundation, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and other local and regional organizations.

A trail and viewing area have been installed for visitors who hope to catch a glimpse of the animals, and a public event to officially welcome this keystone species to Midewin is being planned for the spring of 2016.

Tiffany Mucci head shotClick here to learn more about “The Bison Project” at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. SUST senior Tiffany Mucci also authored this creative non-fiction essay about Midewin during the May 2015 section of SUST 390. This year she is co-editing the new Writing Urban Nature project for the Roosevelt Urban Sustainability Lab and serving as Assistant Editor of the SUST at RU blog.

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