Where the Buffalo Roam – Midewin Tallgrass Prairie Introduces Bison Herd
For over ten years, I‘ve enjoyed my commute from Wilmington going north on Route 53, often wondering how cool it would be to see a herd of bison standing on the pre-dawn, rolling hills of the thousands of acres at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie as the sun breaks the horizon. That vision now may be a reality thanks to the hard work, dedication and efforts by thousands of people and organizations. On October 14th and October 20th, Midewin welcomed their new herd of bison, 4 bulls and 23 cows to be exact. I was fortunate enough to attend a ceremony last week where Midewin staff and numerous partners released the herd into the 450 acres of prairie that will be part of their new home. Many non-profit representatives, government officials and local dignitaries were on hand to witness the release of the bison. As the herd of 27 bison thundered past, everyone cheered and applauded, sharing the emotion and excitement that I was feeling. It’s incredibly exciting to see bison returned to Illinois, as well as witness this historic event for Midewin.
Although they are know as a historic icon of the vast prairies of Central and Western United States — a representative of the wild west, bison once roamed free in Illinois hundreds of years ago. And unlike some other regions where bison have been transplanted, the introduction of the herd at Midewin was part of a strategic prairie restoration plan put into effect years ago by many government agencies and non-profits. Bison are vital to a true prairie ecosystem, so Midewin staff will be monitoring how bison grazing will affect a restored prairie and the habitat for grassland birds. We can’t hunt them, but they are spectacular animals. As a long-time friend and hunter of the Midewin property, I’m excited to see this addition to this amazing ecosystem. And anyone that loves seeing massive, native land animals will appreciate this, as nothing inspires awe like seeing a bison on the hoof in the open prairie. Visitors can get more information and trail maps at the Midewin office located south of Elwood on Route 53, just north of Wilmington. There’s no guarantee you will see the bison if you visit — it’s hard to tell a 1,500-pound animal where to go and what to do. But check with Midewin staff at their main office and they will give you instructions as to where to park and the best area to see the herd. Check out the photos below. And get more information on Midewin’s website HERE.
The entire Midewin staff should be applauded for their dedication and hard work to make this happen. Anyone who knows how the government works knows that most things take a long longer to accomplish (and that’s putting it mildly). But the process to bring this incredible resource to Will County happened faster than anyone ever thought it would. When this news about the bison herd began to circulate a few years ago (you may have seen my blogs), everbody figured it would be 9 or 10 years to come to fruition. But it happened, fast. So please share a “Thank You” to the folks at Midewin on their Facebook page below, or when you visit in person.
Here is a press release from the US Forest Service…
WILMINGTON, IL (Oct. 23, 2015) – The U.S. Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) and other partners and volunteers are celebrating the arrival of 27 American bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
“We are proud to be a part of bringing these iconic animals to their natural environment in Illinois and appreciative of the partnerships that made this possible,” said Mary Mitsos, interim NFF president.
The first bison to arrive at Midewin came from Colorado Oct. 14. Four bison bulls were transferred to Midewin by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, located at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo. The bulls, one 2-year-old and three 3-year-olds, will help grow the herd at Midewin.
On Oct. 20, 23 bison cows arrived at the Prairie from the Buffalo Country Buffalo Ranch in Gann Valley, South Dakota.
“Once the bison arrived at Midewin, they were kept in a secluded area inside the new bison corral. Midewin staff monitored them for a few days as they settled into their new home. On Oct. 23, they were released into one of four pastures, located near State Route 53 and the Iron Bridge Trailhead area,” said Wade Spang, Prairie Supervisor.
While a large public event is being planned for spring 2016, Midewin staff understands that people are very eager to see the bison.
The bison may now be visible to the public. However, due to the vast size of the pasture system and the rolling topography, spotting bison depends where they choose to spend their time. Visitors may or may not see the animals on any given day because of the herd’s location.
“Midewin staff and a trained group of volunteers are available to discuss the bison introduction project with visitors at our Welcome Center and the Iron Bridge Trailhead area,” said Wendy Tresouthick, Midewin environmental education specialist. Information and maps will be available at both locations.
Visitors are encouraged to begin their visit to Midewin at the Welcome Center located between Wilmington and Elwood along State Route 53. The Welcome Center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, and will be open Saturday and Sunday starting Oct. 24 through Nov. 1 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After Nov. 1, the Welcome Center will be closed until spring.
The Iron Bridge Trailhead, located 2.9 miles north of the Welcome Center, is the main access point to the bison area. A staffed information station will be open between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays starting Oct. 24 through Nov. 8. Visitors may also touch a bison hide and skull, borrow binoculars for viewing bison, and experience other hands-on learning opportunities at this location.
A self-guided trail leads visitors from the information station to the bison pasture fence line, where you might see bison grazing. Be aware that depending on your route, you may have to hike or bike one to 2 miles in an effort to view the bison.
Organized groups or families may also borrow one of Midewin’s “bison boxes” full of educational materials. The box also includes Midewin artifacts, pictures and information suitable for teachers or youth leaders to conduct a self-led educational hike on the Prairie.
Part of the on-going prairie restoration at Midewin includes introducing American bison to graze on an experimental basis on approximately 1,200 acres of fenced pasture located within the Prairie’s 19,000 total acres. In keeping with the Midewin Prairie Plan, the experiment will provide information on how bison improve the diversity of native vegetation on restored prairies, compared to similar prairie restoration sites without bison. Midewin staff will also monitor how bison grazing on restored prairie provides suitable habitat for a suite of grassland birds. The bison introduction effort is a partnership between the National Forest Foundation, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and other local and regional organizations.
The public is encouraged to stay updated on the latest developments by visiting the Midewin Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Midewin. Midewin plans to share images of the bison, and offer future educational opportunities.