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Bison at Midewin: Really hard to believe & perspectives

Bison are truly here.

I was never sure bison would be established at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, but there were four bulls and 23 cows in the holding pasture on Oct. 23.

“I didn’t think I would see this,’’ said Bill Glass, veteran ecologist at Midewin. “It went quicker than I thought it would.’’

When the gate was opened, they thundered through and into the 500 acres of the northwest pasture area.

With that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Matt McCollum, who brought the bulls, turned prairie sage and said, “You can always get bison to do what they want to do.’’

It was cool as I hoped.

It was even cooler after the press conference to spot the herd of bison as I drove 55 mph north on Route 53.

They are here.

This is a realistic expectation when viewing the bison in the great experiment at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Credit: Dale Bowman

But I also want to give a reality check. This will not be like the intimate connection at Custer State Park in South Dakota with bison crossing the road and surrounding vehicles.

The photo at the top was in an ideal close setting on release. More realistic for expectations of viewing is this one of the bison herd waiting on a hill.

Wilmington mayor Marty Orr, who grew up out West with bison, correctly noted that they become “little brown dots in the countryside.’’

The bison are in the rolling hills of the northwest pasture and only viewable some times from the trails on the north side, out of the Iron Bridge Trailhead, or, within the next couple months, from the soon-to-open white gravel trail along the east side of 53, from the Welcome Center north to Iron Bridge Trailhead.

They are expected to be in the northwest pasture into next year, but will be rotated around to three smaller connected pasture areas.

The four bulls–a 2-year-old and three 3-year-olds–arrived from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Colorado on Oct. 14. The 23 cows arrived on Oct. 20 from Buffalo Country Buffalo Ranch in Gann Valley, South Dakota. Most of the cows are believed to be pregnant, so there should be a larger herd by late spring.

The National Forest Foundation deserves much credit for making this experiment of restoring bison happen. The experiment could last 20 years. Individually, much credit goes to Mary Mitsos, interim NFF president as prime mover.

Glass said that pasture has smooth bromegrass, fescue, bluegrass and orchard grass. He hopes to drill in warm-weather native grasses: both bluestems (big and little) on the hills and Indiangrass in the valleys.

“They like the high points,’’ Glass said. “I suspect they will go to the high points.’’

Gary Sullivan, senior restoration ecologist for The Wetlands Initiative long involved with restoring native landscapes at Midewin, said in the wild bison are transient. At Midewin, they are contained.

“Still a lot of uncertainty on impact,’’ he said. “They are going to have an impact. They will eat some things. They not eat some things. There will be a certain amount of disturbance.’’

Bison are noted for wallows, which could undo weeks of work on native plantings in short order.

“What a prairie will look like with bison in it we are just finding out,’’ Sullivan said as the bison climbed the highest hill. “But it is kind of cool.’’

It’s a cool grand experiment.

A lone bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Credit: Dale Bowman