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Midewin: Beginnings, bison & beyond

Prairie plants–yellow coneflower, rosinweed, wild bergamot, goldenrod, compass plant and big bluestem–reaching to 10 or 12 feet so overwhelmed me that I connected to the sodbusters who settled and plowed under the native prairies of the Midwest.

That connection to the past is a major value of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the 19,000 acres administered by the Forest Service near Wilmington. The sheer scope of the greatest open space near Chicago is probably its second greatest value.

The space is great enough that an experimental herd of American bison will be introduced this fall and unveiled to the public in the spring.

Exterior fencing for the introduction of bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Forest Service

Exterior fencing for the introduction of bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Credit: Forest Service

Word came last week that the infrastructure for the reintroduction–almost seven miles of six-foot tall exterior fencing, watering systems, a bison-specific corral system–were ready.

I’m a critter guy. I’ve been waiting for years for bison at Midewin.

So has Bill Possiel, president of National Forest Foundation, major player in the reintroduction.

“In addition to providing an opportunity to study how bison impact tallgrass prairie restoration, the effort will provide Chicago area residents with a chance to see these iconic animals in their natural environment,’’ he said.

That is no small thing. Prairies, even in their prime, are subtle; bison are in your face as anybody who has visited Custer State Park will attest.

It has taken nearly 20 years for the prairies at Midewin to resonate with me. I think I have a duty in my columnist role to appreciate Midewin. But it wasn’t until a late July visit that Midewin grabbed my heart.

Up close in late July 2015 at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Dale Bowman

Up close in late July 2015 at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Maybe it was my maudlin mood on a Friday. Or maybe that I caught the area around the Iron Bridge Trailhead at its most colorful, a lasciviousness of yellows, sort of like watching Cher perform in her decadent prime.

It struck me that my wife would not have to trek the South Dakota homestead of Laura Ingalls Wilder to grasp the enormity of the prairie. She could do it at Midewin.

It wasn’t just the height of the plants, it was the way the prairie stretched toward the horizon (or at least Route 53) and the way the roots and lower vegetation made penetrating impossible.

I think bison, which will be contained in 1,200 acres of pasture land, will help the general public learn to love or at least appreciate Midewin better.

So does Gary Sullivan, senior restoration ecologist for The Wetlands Initiative, one of the long-time contributors to restoration projects at Midewin.

“They are expected to bring both attention and visitors, raising Midewin’s public profile, and hopefully leading to better protection of Midewin’s resources and funding for future restoration work throughout the prairie,’’ he said. “There is supposed to be some research conducted as well into what impacts bison have on native grassland habitat, a topic of some debate and conjecture. That should prove interesting if the FS manages to do it well.’’

Iron Bridge Trailhead entry at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Dale Bowman

Iron Bridge Trailhead entry at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Credit: Dale Bowman

To grasp Midewin well, I like to walk the trails splaying out from the Iron Bridge Trailhead, north of the main office on the east side of Route 53.

You can walk/hike as long or short as you want and immediately can feel the expanse of the prairie.

For general information on Midewin, which has biking, hiking, sightseeing, bird watching, volunteer and hunting opportunities, go to fs.usda.gov/main/midewin/home.

(A special note of thanks to Allison Cisneros, who identified the plants in the opening photo, via Jackie Vogen.)

The expanse of prairie in late July 2015 at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Dale Bowman

The expanse of prairie in late July 2015 at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Credit: Dale Bowman