Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie prepares for bison herd

SHARE Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie prepares for bison herd
SHARE Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie prepares for bison herd

WILMINGTON — Wildlife officials are preparing for the arrival of an American bison herd at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie as part of a long-term experimental reintroduction and restoration project.

For the past two years, U.S. Forest Service staff has been planning for the return of 30 to 35 bison at the prairie that’s near Wilmington, about 60 miles south of Chicago. The bison likely will arrive sometime in October.

Officials unveiled the newly constructed handling facilities on Wednesday. They include $700,000 worth of infrastructure, four pastures, a corral area and a year-round watering source on 1,200 acres of grassland.

Efforts to restore the land Midewin have been ongoing since the national prairie was established in 1996, after the Army closed its Joliet Arsenal Ammunition Plant.

“When Midewin was first getting established, there were a lot of folks from a lot of different communities and interest groups that were thinking … ‘This is Illinois bringing back prairie. Why not bring back bison?’” restoration team leader Renee Thakali said. “It was an exciting idea early, early on.”

The 20-year bison experiment was proposed in 2012. It’s being executed by the National Forest Foundation and other groups.

Officials hope the hefty beasts and their grazing will benefit the area’s tallgrass prairie ecosystem and grassland bird habitat.

“We are hoping the bison can help us increase the diversity of our plantings out here. It’s been shown in other areas where, if you are restoring prairie and you reintroduce bison in the area, they can help you increase the diversity,” U.S. Forest Service ecologist Bill Glass said.

The Forest Service staff will collect data and compare it with other prairie restoration efforts conducted with cattle, which have different grass diets than bison, and efforts in which neither bison nor cattle are involved. They’re hoping to determine whether bison, America’s largest land mammals, can help in the restoration process and help provide habitat for grassland birds, Glass said.

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