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Bison are back and here to stay at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Posted by Robert Westover, U.S. Forest Service in Forestry
Feb 21, 2017
Bison on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Bison on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo credit: Gary Chancey, US Forest Service.

Guest Post by Hannah Ettema of the National Forest Foundation.

It was like stepping back through time on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Some 200 years ago, when bison prominently roamed the Illinois landscape, kicking up dust as they ran in the herd before settling against a back-drop of tall prairie grasses.

That scene from the past is actually part of the Midewin’s future as four bulls and 23 cows were introduced to their new 1,200 acre enclosure. The first to arrive were the bulls, one 2-year-old and three 3-year-olds, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo.

Next were the cows, ranging from 2-6 years old, from the Buffalo Country Buffalo Ranch in Gann Valley, S.D.

Since the establishment of the Midewin, the Nation’s only national tallgrass prairie managed by the U.S. Forest Service, staff and locals have shared a vision of bringing bison back to the Prairie. Thanks to the dedication, work and support of the National Forest Foundation, partners and volunteers, this dream has become reality.

“We are excited and proud to be a part of this historic effort,” said Mary Mitsos, interim president of the National Forest Foundation. “It would not have been possible without the dedication and support of so many partners.”

Through strategic management efforts, the Midewin staff hopes to see positive changes in prairie health. The experiment will explore how bison grazing patterns support the tallgrass ecosystem and how the bison’s grazing will benefit grassland bird habitat. Ultimately the experiment will determine if bison can be used as a restoration tool across the more than 1,200 acres.

To safely house and care for them, the National Forest Foundation raised funds and hired contractors to install fencing and other infrastructure at Midewin including

  • 35,575 feet – almost 7 miles – of exterior fencing around the bison grazing pastures;
  • 10,573 feet of interior fencing separating the bison grazing pastures;
  • Corral fencing, a watering station, water-pump, and solar power; and a
  • Berlinic Cube – a bison-specific corral system for safe animal handling and health monitoring.

Visitors to Midewin, including those from nearby Chicago, are encouraged to stop in at the Welcome Center for information about the herd and where to go to catch a glimpse of these amazing animals. Later this year, a webcam will be installed at the enclosure, so viewers across the globe can view bison grazing on the Prairie. In addition, the Forest Service and partners are planning a public event in spring of 2016 to celebrate this historic “homecoming.”

“The bison’s arrival marks a large achievement for the U.S. Forest Service as well as the large community of partners in the area. We can’t wait to welcome everyone to explore all that Midewin has to offer,” said Wade Spang, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie supervisor.

Bison arriving on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Bison arrive on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo credit: Gary Chancey, US Forest Service.
Category/Topic: Forestry

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Nov 02, 2015

While I am in Illinois, and appreciate the publicity this article provides, I have to point out that Midewin is not the nation's only national tallgrass prairie. It may be the only one run by the USFS, but the NPS has the Tallgrass Prairie National Park in KS - which is not a restored prairie, but one that was never converted to row crop agriculture.

Marta Witt
Nov 03, 2015

Kent, you are correct. Midewin was the first nationally-designated tallgrass prairie but is not the only one, now. It's great that this iconic ecosystem will be restored and/or preserved in multiple locations.

Ben Weaver
Nov 04, 2015

@Kent - thank you for bringing this to our attention. We apologize for the oversight, it should have read that Midewin is the only national tallgrass prairie managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The blog has been updated accordingly.

Jane Baldwin
Nov 07, 2015

As a Midwesterner, I am particularly interested in efforts towards prairie restoration at all levels, and across the sectors. However, I find this effort from the federal level particularly exciting in the number of resources that it is able to draw upon. I see USDA's role in this effort as an example of the strides that can be made in terms of conservation when it occurs at the federal level. The resources available to the FS through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are obviously important to the ability to furnish these efforts. I am happy to see that the restoration of the bison herd will be used for research purposes in understanding how having a herd present affects the ecosystem, and I hope to see this resource used also for education purposes for the local population to better understand the history and potential of the landscape and the ultimate importance of environmental conservation and restoration.

May 26, 2017

I am instered in the bison at Tall Grass . Anything to do with how they are progressing in Illinois.
I now living at Symphony of Joliet and cannot go to Tall Grass in person. Anything about them
will be appreciated.