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The return of the bison: 'Wild' herds again roam Illinois, Iowa prairies

FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill. — The few signs directing visitors to Nachusa Grasslands off Interstate 88 do not advertise their bulky brown beasts, nor do they guarantee visitors a sighting.

But here, about 80 miles east of the Quad-Cities near Dixon, lucky visitors or passersby could spot one of the key ingredients in Nachusa’s restoration project: The American bison.

Conservationists have spent the past three decades converting hundreds of acres of farmland back into prairie, preparing for the massive, roaming herbivores.

For the first time in almost 200 years, growing herds of the iconic grazers have returned to the land they once knew so intimately.

While about 350 bison now reside on four monitored prairies in Iowa and Illinois, Nachusa is nearest to the Quad-Cities.

The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization that owns the northern Illinois prairie, began reintroducing the animals in October 2014.

Today, Nachusa’s 90 bison roam free across 1,500 acres of prairie that is protected with 14 miles of sturdy carbon-steel fencing. With the exception of the annual roundup in October, the volunteers and staff rarely, if ever, interfere with the animals — not even for the birthing of calves.

At times, personnel will go days without seeing a single bison.

“They take care of themselves,” said Bill Kleiman, Nachusa’s project director, gazing through a barn window that overlooks the vast and natural landscape he helped create over the past 24 years. “They evolved to be here, and we’re just trying to stay out of their way.”

‘They’ve never had it so good’

Stepping past the “DANGER” sign, across a cattle grate and onto a gravel/dirt road, Kleiman entered the bison’s domain with no sign of hesitation.

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Nachusa Grasslands

Project director Bill Kleiman points out scenery while walking through the tallgrass prairie this month at Nachusa Grasslands near Dixon, Illinois. Volunteers and staff harvest and plant 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of seed a year, and have restored 120 separate areas, all varying in size, across the 4,000-acre preserve.

Standing up to 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to a ton, bison are North America’s largest mammals. At full speed, the horned, and deceptively agile, quadrupeds are capable of charging at 35-40 mph.

“If you move slowly, they’re less likely to scatter,” Kleiman whispered, drawing curious stares from a small group of grass-eating females, called cows, and the hefty calves that stayed close to their mothers. “They’re more skittish when you’re on foot.”

Kleiman, with his graying goatee and weather-worn Carhartt jacket and matching cap, circled back in his Chevy Silverado, and the wandering cluster was unbothered. The bison simply minded their own business, methodically munching their way through lunch.

“I like that I can hear them grazing," he said from his close-up view in the truck. “They’ve never had it so good with this lush grass.”

On Dec. 1, temperatures hovered in the mid-30s, and the season's first snow threatened to fall from the overcast sky above the Nachusa grounds, in the heart of the Rock River Valley.

Whitetail deer dashed across the prairie into the surrounding woodlands, possibly seeking cover from hunters on the first day of Illinois’ firearm season.

The bison, meanwhile, appeared content, protected from the chilling gusts of wind by their thick and shaggy coats.

“They take care of themselves in the winter,” Kleiman said. “They’re made for it.”

Back in their element 

Across the preserve's largest roaming ground, which contains 1,000 acres, Kleiman pointed out dozens of “grazing lawns,” or seemingly mowed patches of grass, maintained by the bison.

They graze low to the ground and return to previously foraged spots once new growth appears. In the spring, crews at Nachusa burn large sections of land, and within a month, sunlight turns those scalded stretches into fresh “green carpets of grass,” Kleiman said. 

The bison gravitate toward those portions of the prairie, which they’ll manage until the following spring, when another prescribed fire offers new areas to explore. That rotation, Kleiman said, helps distribute the animals' "cascading" effects around the preserve.

"It seemed natural to try and work with bison because of the way they use the landscape and are adapted to it," he said. "You can use cattle for conservation grazing, too, but the trick is to have light grazing. You don't want everything to look like a lawn."

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Nachusa Grasslands bison

A small group of bison munch on grass at Nachusa Grasslands in the Rock River Valley. Currently, 90 bison live on 1,500 acres of restored prairie, where their selective grazing stimulates growth for other species.

In 2008, Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve near Sioux City, Iowa, which The Nature Conservancy also owns, replaced its cattle with bison.

Since introducing the herd there, Emily Hohman, the western Iowa land steward for The Nature Conservancy, said she's noticed changes to vegetation structure across the preserve.

And the bison aren't just treating themselves. 

Conservationists say the low-maintenance animals leave their mark wherever they roam by creating "disturbances" with their hooves and horns. Those impacts can stimulate growth for other species, ward off invasive ones, such as trees, and build new habitats for other wildlife. 

When they wallow, or roll in the dirt, for example, their bodies carve depressions in the ground that capture rainwater and runoff. Their fur also collects soil and seeds, which they spread across the prairie on their rounds.

Saved by an Iowan

When the first North American explorers arrived and saw bison that resembled their genetic buffalo cousins of Asia and Africa, up to 60 million of them occupied the continent, experts estimate.

Brian Leech, an environmental historian and professor at Augustana College, said bison definitely fed off the grasslands and prairie ecosystems that once covered a majority of Illinois and Iowa. But the herd sizes here never rivaled the populations that dominated the West, he said.

The American bison, which the Obama administration this year named the country’s national mammal, all but vanished from the Midwest in the 19th century:

• In 1832, records show, the last bison east of the Mississippi River were killed in southwest Wisconsin.

• Less than a decade later, in 1839, the last accounts of bison around the Quad-City area were spotted near Clinton County.

• By 1870, human pressures had urged the animals westward out of Iowa completely and onto the Great Plains.

• By 1889, zoologist William Hornaday, who grew up in Iowa, estimated the number of wild bison had been reduced to fewer than 1,000 head.

In response to the mass slaughter of the animals for food and hides, Hornaday helped form the American Bison Society in 1905. The group's goal was to save the species from extinction.

With President Theodore Roosevelt by its side, Hornaday’s group gathered wild bison from the West and launched an aggressive conservation campaign, creating bison preserves across the country.

In 1913, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota received 14 bison from the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Hornaday served as director there and used some of the zoo's real estate to protect his beloved bison.

Thanks to those century-old efforts, offspring of the Wind Cave bison live at Nachusa, as well as three other preserves owned by The Nature Conservancy.

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Nachusa bison

A male bison uses a bench to scratch an itch on his forehead earlier this month on the outskirts of Nachusa Grasslands' preserve. Bulls stand up to 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to a ton. 

In April 2015, conservationists at Nachusa, who continue to praise Hornaday’s work, witnessed what they think marked the first birth of a wild bison east of the Mississippi River in nearly 200 years.

Today, an estimated 500,000 bison live in North America. More than 90 percent of them reside on private ranches built for meat production and fewer than 20,000 roam free.

'Pure' vs. cattle-crossed

Two years ago, a caravan from Illinois traveled 450 miles to collect Nachusa’s first 20 Wind Cave bison from Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve in northwest Iowa.

Five years before that, Broken Kettle, in the northern Loess Hills, became reintroduction grounds for 28 bison. Today, 159 of them graze 2,000 acres of grasslands, making Broken Kettle home to the largest conservation herd in Iowa and Illinois.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Des Moines and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet, Illinois, also have reintroduced conservation herds. Both preserves, which are managed by federal government agencies, tout the genetic diversity of their bison.

Bison Map

Some of Nachusa's representatives say, however, the relative purity of their herd's genetics are what separates them from other herds in Illinois and Iowa, which they say contain DNA from cattle.

A discussion on the topic recently arose over lunch in the barn breakroom at Nachusa among Kleiman, his wife, Susan, their daughter, Leah, and volunteer Jay Stacy.

“It’s an endangered species,” Stacy said, emphasizing the uniqueness of the Wind Cave lineage. “These are descendants of the original bison Teddy Roosevelt and Hornaday collected … this is the North American bison, pure and unblemished.”

Although DNA testing has determined the Wind Cave bison contain few or no cattle genes, some biologists take issue with the term, “pure,” when describing the animals.

Karen Viste-Sparkman, a wildlife biologist at Neal Smith, cited evidence that suggests every herd in existence today, including Wind Cave bison, most likely contains traces of domestic cattle.

“There were so few bison at the turn of the century that some of them were bred with cattle,” said Viste-Sparkman, who tracks 55 bison on 800 acres at Neal Smith, about three hours west of the Quad-Cities. “We don’t know if there are any bison that are pure bison. The main thing is that they have very little cattle genetics in them, and they look and act like bison would.”

This didn't happen overnight

During the barn-lunch discussion, Susan Kleiman reminded Stacy and her family how hard they worked to build the bison a home at Nachusa. 

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Nachusa Grasslands

Susan Kleiman prepares snacks to go with lunch in the breakroom alongside her daughter, Leah, at Nachusa Grasslands. 

The Nature Conservancy’s project in Illinois began long before anyone even dreamed of putting animals there.

In 1986, the organization, considered the largest environmental nonprofit in the U.S., purchased its first piece of land for Nachusa — a 400-acre tract of never-farmed prairie.

As the conservancy acquired more land, volunteers and staff harvested native plant seeds to rebuild the landscape that exists there today.

They hoped to rejuvenate the prairie ecosystem, which once covered about 22 million acres, or 60 percent, of the state, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Today, an estimated one-tenth of 1 percent of Illinois' and Iowa's native prairies remain. 

Over the centuries, agriculture, urban development and timber production depleted a majority of the native grasslands in both states.

Kleiman said workers collect and plant 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of seed a year. In total, they have restored 120 separate areas, all varying in size, across the 4,000-acre preserve, which also consists of woodlands and wetlands.

"People come and they're like, ‘Wow, this is cool,'" Kleiman said. "Well, we've been here for three long decades, working hard to assemble this."

The conservancy spent $1.2 million on everything bison-related, including materials for the fence.

After finishing his grilled-cheese sandwich and bowl of split-pea soup, Stacy stepped outside. Between drags of his cigarette, the longtime volunteer scanned the rolling hills of tall-grass plants that blanket great portions of the preserve. 

"This is probably what it looked like hundreds of years ago," he said, reflecting on his 23 years at Nachusa. "This is the first thing I could ever sink my teeth into. I've become an old man on the prairie." 

What's next? 

Every October, a skeleton crew at Nachusa drives their bison into corrals for medical checkups.

One by one, they are driven toward a squeeze chute that contains them while a veterinarian collects blood, administers medication and checks for microchips.

At last year's herding, data collectors counted a few calves that weighed about 400 pounds each. 

Media mogul Ted Turner owns 15 ranches that contain a reported 51,000 head of bison. When managers at one of Turner's ranches got wind of the stats from Nachusa, they couldn’t believe it and wondered if the Nachusa scale was broken.

“This is Illinois,” Kleiman said, retelling the story with a laugh. “We get a heck of a lot more rain than South Dakota gets. The grass is huge, and the animals are huge, so it’s not surprising we’re getting 400-pound calves.”

This year, they tallied 17 new calves at the roundup. 

The herd's largest males, dubbed "Chain Breaker" and "Can Opener" for the property they've damaged, weigh more than 2,000 pounds.

On his way to the 500-acre corral area, separated from the larger grazing area by a culvert, Stacy spotted one of the bulls, wallowing on a mound of dirt.

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Jay Stacy

Volunteer Jay Stacy points out features of Nachusa's corral used to vaccinate and otherwise manage the bison herd once a year. The longtime volunteer, who called the animals "docile" and "friendly," spends two or three days a week on the preserve in the winter and five days a week in the summer.

"The more I get to know them, the more I appreciate and respect them," he said, cracking a wide smile as he watched Chain Breaker from afar.

"Every day I drive out here, I wonder where they are," he said, referring to the bison as "docile" and "friendly."

"You never know where they're going to be."

Nachusa's current setup can handle about 150 bison, Kleiman said. When the herd reaches that threshold, they'll either trade excess animals to other conservation herds or export them to a meat-production ranch.

"It's not about making a profit," he said, stressing that message more than once. "It's about bringing bison back to an Illinois grassland to see what good things happen when you do that." 

By next fall, visitors should have access to a new self-guided interpretive center, just a half-mile south of the grasslands' headquarters. It will describe Nachusa's history-in-the-making.

As much as he enjoys them, Stacy cautioned that the bison never should be treated or regarded as an attraction.

"This isn’t Disney World, where you pay and go on a ride," he said. "They’re powerful, wild animals. You have to remember that."

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Jack Cullen is a reporter uncovering offbeat stories about people and places in the Quad-City area.