Buffalo billed at Nachusa Grasslands

Bison herd ready for tourist stampede

By Ted Cox

Bison once again roam the Illinois prairie.

That’s right, bison.

Though it’s still not widely known, more than 100 bison now roam free in the Nachusa Grasslands, a 3,600-acre spread owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy for more than 30 years in Franklin Grove, northeast of Dixon off the Reagan Tollway (Interstate 88). About half were brought in and about half native born since being reintroduced to the area just over three years ago.

 It’s a remarkable success story, and the news figures to be getting out to more people, as the Nachusa Grasslands opened a visitor center last fall at 8772 S. Lowden Rd.

“Once we brought bison here, we thought we wanted to have a proper visitor entrance, to engage more,” said Bill Kleiman, who marks his 25th anniversary this year as the grasslands’ full-time manager.

The grasslands were amassed piecemeal by the Nature Conservancy over the last four decades, but the complex now includes the visitor center — completed this spring with new signs and vegetation — and five trailheads. It’s a haven not just for bison, but for birds, with meadowlarks and turkey vultures joining the estimated 180 bird species in the area, including the northern harrier, distinctive for its low-flying coasting just above the tall grasses as it hunts for mice, voles, shrews, and other rodents.

“It’s considered one of the most beautiful raptors,” Kleiman said. “It’ll drop down immediately if it sees prey.

"We're about much more than bison,” he added. "We're about habitat for all sorts of plants and animals."

Bring your binoculars in any case. Hikers are encouraged to stray off the trail and into the natural prairie in most areas, but not into what’s known as the “bison units,” which are fenced and specifically off limits.

Forbidding signs are posted showing human figures sent flying by a butting bison. No one should expect to be petting a bison across a fence, much less expanding the pastime of cow-tipping to bison.

“No, that’d be dangerous,” Kleiman said matter-of-factly. “They’re very nimble and fast. And we want to respect the animal. It’s an important species. It’s doing an important job here in grazing and helping the prairie be healthful.

“People love bison,” he added. “It’s a beloved animal — iconic.”

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"People love bison. It’s a beloved animal — iconic."

Nachusa Grasslands Manager Bill Kleiman (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

On the day One Illinois visited, in early March, a herd of bison was clearly visible from the visitor center, just across a stream in one of the created wetlands onsite. According to Kleiman, beavers have made a home in the grasslands as well, with a dam to create another wetlands area. Sometimes, he added, “the bison emerge out of the tall grass, like ghosts.”

The Nachusa Grasslands site was created by the Nature Conservancy in an attempt to maintain the natural ecological balance in a landscape that is no longer so natural in Illinois. Volunteers weed out invasive species of plants, and collect the seeds of those that belong, also engaging in controlled burns to revitalize various tracts. According to Kleiman, only one acre in 1,000 of the original Illinois prairie remains. The Nachusa Grasslands had to be carefully restored from the land’s previous use as farmland, although with the rolling landscape Kleiman pointed out that some stretches of the area are so-called remnant prairie and have never been cultivated.

“Most of the state is not natural, and our natural areas are small and fragmented,” Kleiman said. “It takes a lot of work,” he added. “You have to work to care for them.

“That’s our responsibility as human stewards of the planet.”

The Nachusa Grasslands are solely a Nature Conservancy project, and the area has developed a national reputation as one of the many success stories of the conservation organization. But Illinois’s Franklin Street State Natural Area is just to the south, and Kleiman lauded the state’s Department of Natural Resources for doing all it does with the limited resources it has to work with.

“The state has a lot of holdings they own themselves,” Kleiman said. “And they want to manage their holdings as well. And it just takes a lot of effort to do that — and money and funding. And the Illinois budget is not in a good place right now.”

Although returning bison to the area was “an early vision for the project,” Kleiman said, it’s only been in the last few years that they’ve actually been on site and thrived. “We’re very pleased to have the bison back,” he added. With about a dozen calves added just this spring, and more expected, the herd now numbers around 130.

 Bison roam the Nachusa Grasslands. (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

Bison roam the Nachusa Grasslands. (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

And now the Nachusa Grasslands are ready to welcome a larger influx of people to see them with the tourist center, although even that has been carefully considered to maintain the environment. There’s a hand pump that brings up crisp, tasty well water — “I think kids will like this,” Kleiman said — but otherwise no running water, because of course there are no underground water lines. Instead, the center has what Kleiman called “compost restrooms,” with wood chips that can be repurposed once they’ve served their role beneath the toilets.

“They say you can use it as fertilizer in your garden if you want to,” Kleiman said, quickly adding, “If you let it cook long enough, it’s safe to do.”

The surrounding towns should welcome the influx of tourists as well, after initially being somewhat befuddled by the whole idea of returning farmland to prairie.

“Probably, when we first arrived, the locals would’ve been saying, ‘What are they doing?’ and ‘Where are they from?’” Kleiman said. “You can see that people were confused. But they can see we work hard and earn it. And I think respect comes with hard work. And the landscape looks good. People like the look of the place.

“And then when the bison came in, a few years ago, you get a sense that the locals think, ‘Yeah, those are our bison. That’s our preserve.’ And there’s a sense of pride that we’ve done something pretty big and bold, and the local community’s proud of that. As they should be.”

Ted Cox