Grunting bison, sniffing bulls: Nachusa Grasslands

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Bison on a hill at Nachusa Grasslands.Credit: Dale Bowman

FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill.–We were close enough to hear the bison grunting as they grazed.

At one point, I looked around and all five of us were smiling. Bison pull that smile from your soul.

I asked John Heneghan if he still gets a thrill from the bison at Nachusa Grasslands.

“Oh, my God, every time I come out, I make a point of coming out to see where they are,’’ he said. “They haven’t lost their allure. I have spent three, four hours by myself watching them.’’

Nachusa is about 4,000 acres of “prairie remnants, restorations, and reconstructions’’ in Lee County. Site description includes this nugget, “Remnant prairie knobs were protected from the plow by an unfarmable overlay of St. Peter Sandstone.’’ The Nature Conservancy started Nachusa with 250 acres in 1986. Almost from the beginning, reintroduction of bison was a possibility.

Possibility became a reality last October with 30 bison. Sixteen calves were born this year. Another 29 bison were added for a total of 75.

They dot a prairie hillside emphatically. It was engaging to watch them mosey along. Time changed. (We stayed longer than expected.)

When I drew an opening-day permit for a nearby hunting site on Nov. 7, I figured we should see Nachusa and the bison afterward. Good call for Steve Palmisano, Peter Lamar and myself. We met Heneghan and fellow steward Tricia Lowery at noon at headquarters. Heneghan and Lowery, who had worked with volunteers in the morning, gave us a tour and a close-up with the bison.

The herd is on 500 acres on the north end, best viewed from Stone Barn Road. Binoculars help. By December, plans are for the herd to be in the south area, too, for about 1,500 acres. Eventually, there will be stiles over the fences and visitors will be able to hike near the bison.

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Two bulls in the herd of bison at Nachusa Grasslands.

Credit: Dale Bowman

Heneghan and Lowery explained that bison are mostly a matriarchal society, orderly and sedate. The bulls will fight during the mating season, but the order is well established.

One hilarious moment came when the No. 2 bull sniffed a cow’s butt attentively. The top bull, nicknamed Chain Breaker, ambled over and moved No. 2 along, then did his own sniffing. It ended there, no bison porn for us.

As befits a TNC project, science is key. Nachusa works with other TNC sites to increase genetic diversity of the bison.

All kinds of studies are going on, including on microbes in the soil, small mammals (mice and voles are already using bison’s winter hair in nesting) and ornate box turtles. A graduate student is studying where the bison spend their time (five cows have GPS). They eat grasses, which should allow more forbs to grow. Studies will show that impact eventually. There’s such innovation attempts as broadcasting upland piper sounds in the spring, trying to get some to stay and begin nesting again.

“They create disturbance [in the landscape],’’ Heneghan said. “Prairies like disturbances. Things start coming up that haven’t been seen in 100 years.’’

John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery explain the innovative corral system at Nachusa Grasslands.

Credit: Dale Bowman

The fall round-up fits in that scientific inquiry system. It is done to check and document the bison, as well as inoculate the calves.

It is more enticement than round-up. Alfalfa pellets are spread from spreader, which has a siren on it, leading to the gated areas by the corral. The bison follow the pellet line into the corral area. Then the bison enter one by one an innovative Berlinic cube and squeeze chute, which tightens up them and keeps them controlled so they do hurt themselves or equipment.

To contain the bison, slats of metal cattle guards bridge the gate areas. The bison area is surrounded by high-tension steel mesh fencing; every fifth post is a metal pipe is anchored in four feet of concrete.

Bison and Nachusa appear a good mesh. One story is of a bison expert from out West, who looked at the rich prairie, then drawed, “You gonna get some big bison.’’

Already happening. One calf in the October round-up weighed 410 pounds.

Nachusa, open daily, is a changing place well worth a stop.


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