Once while Bernie Buchholz was on his hands and knees deeply engaged in his restoration work at Nachusa Grasslands, something caught his eye and he looked up. Staring back at him a few yards away was a 1,700-pound bison bull.
“It’s not so much frightening as it is presence-building,” Buchholz said of the animals brought two years ago to the 4,000-acre prairie restoration project about 95 miles west of Chicago. They are the first authentically wild herd east of the Mississippi River since the 1830s.
“I have been jolted into presence by these beautiful animals,” he added.
Figuratively speaking, jolt might be the appropriate term to describe the bison’s impact at Nachusa. Remote Stonebarn Road along the reserve has experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic from bison groupies. Volunteer work days at the grasslands have drawn record attendance. Nachusa has established a Bison Corps to make sure the animals’ basic needs are met.
The phrase staff uses to describe the entire phenomenon is Bison Mania.
“I think it’s going swimmingly,” said Buchholz, president of Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. “When you see how joyful people are when they see the animals, it’s really amazing.”
The bison project, started in 2014 to boost the grasslands restoration at Nachusa, has had setbacks. Managers directed that two bulls be killed by rifle shot after they escaped Nachusa in early December and refused to return. Two calves and a female cow died this year. Prairie restoration workers occasionally must move their targeted work zones to accommodate bison grazing.
But the herd’s population has grown to a robust 90, from the original herd of 20 brought in October 2014 from Broken Kettle Grasslands preserve near Sioux City, Iowa, said Nachusa Project Director Bill Kleiman.
Meanwhile, work continues on a visitors’ shelter, and the conservancy, the international nonprofit that owns Nachusa, is planning to add acres to the grasslands reserve.
In addition, early signs indicate that the animals may be performing the task they were brought here to do.
“There’s a little bit more work involved in having these animals out there than if they weren’t out there,” Kleiman said, “but that’s OK. I like to work. I haven’t gotten a bit tired of seeing them. I think they’re fun and they’re smart.”
Illinois, the Prairie State, once had about 22 million acres of prairie, or about 60 percent of its land, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources reports. Over time, most was converted to farmland.
Today, about 2,500 acres, or one 100th of 1 percent, of the prairie remains.
The Nature Conservancy began acquiring land in the area in 1986 with the primary goal of returning it to native prairie. Voracious grazers that prefer to eat grass, bison help clear the landscape for native flowers and plants and attract a diversity of insects, birds and other animals.
The long-term result is supposed to be a healthy prairie biodiversity that, among other benefits, sequesters carbon and replenishes the soil.
As part of the overall assessment of the Nachusa restoration, researchers are examining its impact on grassland birds, small mammals, deer, soil diversity and bees, to name a few.
It is too early to determine the scope of the bison’s impact on the restoration. Kleiman said that will take years, perhaps decades.
But anecdotal evidence points to a more diverse prairie landscape, Nachusa researchers said.
Buchholz and Holly Jones, an assistant professor and conservation biologist from Northern Illinois University who has been working at Nachusa since 2013, said the bison have created different heights and densities of prairie, a heterogeneous landscape that is expected to attract diverse bird species.
The bison also have been eating around wildflower forbs — an encouraging sign for prairie diversity. In addition, birds and rodents at Nachusa are using bison fur to build their nests, researchers said. And, existing animal species have not been damaged by the bison’s arrival.
The Nachusa experience is Jones’ first exposure to wild bison in a natural setting.
“It’s a really fun place to work,” she said. “It’s a restoration ecologist’s playground, like taking a step back in history, especially since bison are out there.”
The deep affection for and interest in the bison open people to the conservancy’s larger messages of environmental awareness and action, Kleiman said.
“I like how it connects people to the landscape,” he added. “They’re more engaged and more receptive to other messages outside the bison.”
And, sometimes those connections can be rewarding in offbeat ways.
Jones, the NIU professor, recalled working with a graduate student on research at Nachusa. A bison approached and rubbed itself on the student’s vehicle, apparently to satisfy an itch. The encounter left the car damaged.
But when Jones suggested getting it repaired, the student declined.
She realized that her vehicle had achieved a rare distinction: bison back scratcher.