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Bison through the chute to their new home: Young bulls arrive and acclimate at Kankakee Sands

Ten young bull bison arrived and acclimated well at Kankakee Sands, one of three sites near Chicago with reintroduced wild bison.

The young bull bison quickly acclimated to the holding pen and began eating within minutes of arriving at Kankakee Sands. Credit: Dale Bowman
The young bull bison quickly acclimated to the holding pen and began eating within minutes of arriving at Kankakee Sands.
Dale Bowman

MOROCCO, Ind.—The lead bison stuck its shaggy brown head out the back of Eric Schier’s cattle-hauling tractor trailer, took a tentative step toward the loading chute, then backed up.

After 10 minutes of this, Schier climbed his trailer, then lugged a bag of sawdust from a compartment to spread on the new chute.

Bingo, two bull bison lumbered out single file, shortly eight others followed.

“I’ve been waiting for this day,” said Garet Litwiler, conservation technician/bison manager, who built the chute.

The 10 bulls (two 2-year-olds, eight 3-year-olds) from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota spread out in the holding pen at Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands. Like teenage boys opening a refrigerator, the bison began grazing.

“I’m looking for signs of stress and don’t see it: no tongues hanging out and no tails are up,” site manager Trevor

A just arrived young bison bull eyes grazes in the holding pen after arrival at Kankakee Sands. Credit: Dale Bowman
A just arrived young bison bull eyes grazes in the holding pen after arrival at Kankakee Sands.
Dale Bowman

The 10 bulls will provide fresh DNA to the 100-plus bison established and roaming 1,100 acres at Kankakee Sands, 8,400 acres of prairies, wetlands, and savanna, owned and managed by the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

“We’re getting to the point where it is hard to grow in size,” Edmonson said. “We need genetic diversity. This is an opportunity to get new animals for our herd. We don’t want animals born here to breed with animals born here.”

TNC, with six satellite herds, has a unique relationship with Wind Cave to help it reach its genetic conservation goals. Kankakee Sands is the farthest east satellite.

“As a web of networked herds, we can trade animals back and forth as we grow to keep the genetic pool as intact as possible,” Edmonson emailed later.

The Chicago area has three nearby sites (two TNC) with reestablished bison.

It started with 30 in October, 2014 at another TNC site, Nachusa Grasslands, about 100 miles and two hours driving west of downtown Chicago. Edmonson noted TNC is second only to Ted Turner as a producer of wild bison.

“When they started [bison at Nachusa], I told my dad that I wanted to do that,” said Schier, of Mount Morris, who was on his third trip to and from Wind Cave.

I understand that appeal. Bison are awesome brutes and our national mammal.

In October, 2015, 27 bison were introduced as a 20-year experiment in restoring the native tallgrass prairie at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, about 50 miles and an hour drive southwest of downtown.

In October, 2016, 23 bison were introduced to help manage prairies at Kankakee Sands, about 70 miles and an hour and a half drive south of downtown. The site provides critical habitat for more than 600 species of native plants, 70 butterfly species and 250 bird species.

Kankakee Sands staff wrote that bison prefer grazing grasses and sedges, giving an advantage to flowering plants and the insects and animals that those plants support. Grazing also lowers the height of vegetation, providing habitat for such rare birds as the upland sandpiper.

When bison wallow, they create shallow depressions, which fill with rainwater and can provide habitat for amphibians, reptiles, insects and early successional plants.

Edmonson compared that diversity to the diversity they want for their bison.

Litwiler said hair samples were sent to Texas A&M for genetic analysis.

“We have a pretty good idea of the family tree here,” Edmonson said.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Saturday (National Bison Day), Nov 6, Kankakee Sands staff and volunteer bison rangers will talk to visitors at the bison viewing area about bison, the corral and the Wind Cave partnership.

For more about visiting or volunteering, contact Edmonson at trevor.edmonson@tnc.org.