Today, roughly half-a-million bison dot the nation’s landscape, a far cry from the more than 20 to 30 million that once roamed much of North America.
And while they have not been part of the Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem for more than a century, the habitat here will soon be home for 20 to 30 of the animals, perhaps as early as December 2013.
The Midewin, the first national tallgrass prairie, covers 19,000 acres of the former Joliet Arsenal in northeastern Illinois. It is the largest piece of contiguous open space in the Chicago metropolitan area and is located just an hour’s drive from the Windy City.
“Establishing a herd of bison on Midewin will bring more visitors to the site to view these iconic symbols of our heritage,” said Wade Spang, supervisor on the Midewin.
It will also help enhance the local economy along the nearby historic U.S. Route 66.
Along with the bison herd, the proposal will also restore 1,200 acres of non-native grasslands to more desirable habitat for grassland birds by planting a diversity of native tallgrass species such as little bluestem, Indian grass and big bluestem.
The proposal also lays out a system of multi-use trails with elevated overlooks that will surround the bison pasture. Hiking trails will be within portions of it and only opened for trail use when bison are not present. Long-term plans include a visitor tram system that travels within the pastures.
“Scientific literature frequently refers to bison as a keystone species in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem,” said Spang. “This is a great opportunity for partners, especially universities who are interested in studying the effect of bison grazing when restoring grassland bird habitat.”
Keystone species have a disproportionately large effect on their environment. Bison have a couple of effects on prairie ecosystems as they graze and wallow. When they graze, their pattern is patchy, leaving a mosaic of grass heights and plant species, which benefits plant and animal diversity. In addition, grazing increases the cycling of nitrogen in the soil. As they wallow, bison increase plant and animal diversity. Soil compaction can aid in surface water retention as well, thereby providing habitat for aquatic species.
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The return or reintroduction of a so-called keystone species is a good idea for the SPECIES' GRASSLAND. Prairie and range are just Americanized names for grassland. Efforts should be focused equally on encouraging the return of buffalo grass and other native plants. It is not clear if the Forest Service intends to do this. Of course the "forest" in Forest Service refers fairly well to SPECIES' FOREST. It is the species forest and species grassland that we want to restore and make whole again on federal lands. The 21st century is a century of change. It is long past time to drop the "resource" from natural resources. Time also for retirement of those in the Forest Service who never will understand. The species grassland is a place of, by and for all the other native species that are the true occupants past, present and future. Easy to understand if you try.
Despite its limitations, I laud this project as a small contribution to the public understanding of American plains bison. Yet, USDA can be misleading in what it says, and what it does not say (Sorry). Today a "half-million bison dot the nation's landscape." Amost all of these are in private, commercial herds where the species is being domesticated. On native USA range (does not include the Kaibab National Forest) there are only about 18,000 bison in conservation herds. These are public bison or owned by The Nature Conservancy or one other such organization. They are in 44 herds, 34 of which have 400 or fewer bison and for the most part are inbreeding. Without abundant exchange of bison with many other herds, the Midewin herd will inbreed and also lose genetic diversity rapidly. We have only one conservation herd that can be considered "wild", that is subject to a preponderance of natural selection without significant inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity. It is in Yellowstone National Park. In the USA, plains bison are on their way to joining several of the world's large mammals that are abundant in domestication and rare or gone from the wild. There is still time to save some wild bison in the USA. But it will require establishing some new herds of at least 1000 bison on some large, diverse habitats of about 500 square miles. We have public lands that could serve as a nucleus for such endeavors, and some of these lands are already in the hands of the Forest Service - but all of them are grazed by private livestock at subsidized, publicly costly rates. This will not change until there is a broad public understanding of the threat of domestication to this species in the USA.
Along with the bison herd, the proposal will also restore 1,200 acres of non-native grasslands to more desirable habitat for grassland birds by planting a diversity of native tallgrass species such as little bluestem, Indian grass and big bluestem. The main purpose for Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is to restore the native habitat, conserve and enhance native populations of fish, wildlife and plants.
I'm glad to see our government agencies taking actions like the one mentioned in this article. I just wish they did more. I grew up in Oklahoma and currently live in North Texas and I've witnessed the reduction in native grasslands through farming, over-grazing/introduction of non-native grasses and the forestation by Eastern Red Cedar. Not only did we nearly eliminate the most recognizable species of mammal from the plains, but we are in jeopardy of loosing many of the birds. Both, the lesser and greater pairie chickens populations have been reduced to levels similar to bison. Bobwhite quail are at an all-time low. I've been an avid quail hunter for 30 years and have not made an effort to go in the past 4 years because of the population decline. I'm afraid that 40 years from now the only wildlife we have is what will be located on these small parcels of land that we call national parks or recreation areas. I won't even get started on discussing the farming in western section of the plains that relies on irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer.....I guess if we wait another 50-100 years then all the water will be gone and at that time the land will return to its native state. Hopefully, someday we will have a national park or parks on the plains of 1 million+ continuous acres of native habitat to support our native wildlife.