A Reunion of Bison and Tallgrass

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In this Route we see only vast Meadows, with little clusters of Trees here and there, which seem to have been planted by the Hand; the Grass grows so high in them, that one might lose one’s self amongst it; but everywhere we meet with Paths that are as beaten as they can be in the most populous Countries; yet nothing passes through them but Buffaloes…

~ Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, French Jesuit explorer and historian, describing lands close to the Illinois River in 1721

You have to know exactly where you are going. Either that, or notice that the phalanxes of corn marching by your car window have broken ranks. But if someone has clued you in, told you a tallgrass secret, you’ll spot an unassuming sign, planted like a flag on a sandy shoulder blade amidst this Illinois cornscape. This marks the public “parking lot” for Nachusa Grasslands. Take a walk past the sign. There’s a world thousands of years old just a few dozen feet down the trail.

I drove out to Nachusa thinking not of corn but of bison. Bison will be here soon. October 2014, to put a date on it. Before the next New Year’s Day, they’ll be snorting steamy breath into the chill air. This Illinois prairie patch will feel their hooves, their teeth, their rolling one-ton bodies for the first time in nearly two centuries.

John Schmadeke was here to take me on a tour. I couldn’t have asked for a better prairie docent. He let me ride shotgun as we drove, giving me the 3500-acre lay of the land that is Nachusa.

I was surprised by how good it felt to be in a pickup, seatbelt holstered, bouncing down a narrow road, with grasses scraping against the doors and tickling the truck’s underbelly. I thought back to teenage fishing trips in Oklahoma spent with my buddy Cory Woodham, washboarding over land that his grandpa leased—once a place of adventure, now a suburban golf course (more but not better used). Windows down, so the smell of sun and soil and sky blows straight into your face. Stop where you please; go when you want.

Nachusa Grasslands is a fortunate remnant. Acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 1986, over the decades this prairie parcel has slowly grown with the addition of slivers of neighboring land. John described it as “a botanical hotspot” that supports close to 750 native plant species as well as threatened animals like the Blanding’s turtle. In terms of its biodiversity, “It’s like Florida Keys or Hawaii, but with much less attention given to it,” he remarked. Nachusa is a different kind of spectacular, to be sure, one that requires a more discerning eye.

John stopped the truck and we clambered out at the base of a small rise. On the short walk uptrail to an overlook, John confided that this spot was a favorite of his. I could see why. After a few moments, from the proper angle and with modest imagination, the Illinois past came into view—a rolling prairie sprinkled with gnarled bur oaks and a ground aflame in copper and amber, stretching and yawning into the distance.

Little bluestem is the dominant plant here. The sturdy stalks of this grass seem to decant breaths of wind into various shades of whisky. But the glories are many—from tiny, four- and five-petaled lavenders a few inches from the ground to soaring talons curled beneath red-tails above. The moods and tones change by the season, anchored and nurtured by a soil beholden to time-scales infrequently pondered.

Further into the tallgrass, our next stop-and-walk brought us to a handful of prairie “knobs.” Nachusa lies within a fifty-mile oval of sand-and-gravel soils, folded like a lumpy blanket. The knobs are significant not simply because they vary the topography of the site; more importantly, they were spared the plow. As neighboring fields were rutted and converted to farmland, the soil quality on the knobs made them seem unworthy of the effort. As a result, many still host significant rare plant communities.

While John pointed out a stiff-leaved aster on one of these knobs, he told me about a number of rare or threatened species for whom Nachusa is critical, such as the regal fritillary. “Very few places east of the Mississippi have them.” This cinnamon-orange butterfly with creamy dabs of white on its hindwings lays its eggs on bird’s-foot violet, a plant that needs open sun and which a knobby habitat kindly provides. After poking around, we next descended to the calcareous soils of a fen, a groundwater-fed, mineral-rich depression that captures water and invites a unique biota. The time of year wasn’t right to witness a profusion of color, but John thought we might at least find the last periwinkle blooms of a fringed gentian. We did. I imagine that if someone had shown me flowers like the fringed gentian early enough in life, I would have become a botanist.

It’s a special kind of privilege to explore a prairie, perhaps heightened by the knowledge that less than one-tenth of one percent of Illinois prairie has survived the plow and the pavement. Places like Nachusa open up glimpses into the historical past, and possible futures—but sometimes it’s best to take a breath and appreciate this living world in the present.

*     *     *     *     *

Nowadays prairie habitats don’t just happen. Healthy prairies take commitment. John told me that invasive plants, like red clover, parsnip, and honeysuckle, are a perpetual problem. In the absence of a diverse and established assembly of the prairie’s floral denizens, non-native species can quickly colonize a patch of soil.

John knows this first-hand; he has been a steward at Nachusa since 1995. Nachusa depends on constant maintenance and volunteer gumption. To put some numbers on it: a prairie planting from scratch uses, per acre: 45 pounds of forb (flowering plants) seed; 5 pounds of grass seed; 350 hours of work per acre, over a three year span. That’s just to get things going. Volunteers log many additional hours weeding invasive plants; collecting, cultivating, and sowing native plant seeds; and monitoring their sites.

Most of the work is done by folks who live nearby, though there are people who make the pilgrimage from further afield (there is even an adjacent home that has been repurposed as a kind of overnight stewardship hostel). John and I made an impromptu stop along the way to meet Jay, a long-time volunteer who has developed a successful protocol for newbie stewards. After some shouting, we found Jay literally chest-deep in prairie, his nails soiled from collecting seeds. It was clear, even from a brief conversation, that Jay knew this land, that part of him had come to reside here. I expect that for many stewards, Nachusa has become an investment in sweat and a refuge for the spirit.

How do the bison figure into all this? In some ways, the stewards at Nachusa have been making this prairie home as hospitable as possible for bison. Their house-warming gifts, however, come in the form of diverse prairie grasses.

The bison are expected to do their part. In fact, the restoration of the prairie was ultimately the argument that secured their return to Nachusa. Prairie, to continue to be prairie, relies on some essential ecological factors. You can’t just plant seeds and hope for the best. Restoration stewards have learned, for example, that fire is critical—for beating back encroaching trees, suppressing non-native species, and cycling nutrients into the soil for fire-adapted native plants.

But fire is only one part of the equation. Prairies were grazed by bison. And bison preferred certain plants for their foraging; they sculpted the land with their migrations and nutrient cycling (i.e., eating and pooping); and they created ephemeral pools of water due to a penchant for wallowing. In short, bison habits diversified habitats, creating niches for various expressions of prairie life.

After many years of restoration work, it became apparent at Nachusa that fire wasn’t enough. Despite a regular regime of controlled burns, a key ingredient was lacking. Some native grasses were dominating; others, despite repeated seedings, couldn’t find a toehold. A big part of the problem: no grazers. When talk began, cattle were briefly considered as a surrogate for bison. But in the end, it was determined that nothing could replace the ecological impacts and benefits of the prairie’s original grazers.

Toward the end of our trip, John took me to see the place where the bison will soon reside. It’s a place he knows well. He and his wife Cindy were stewards for six years on the Hook Larson Unit, a 140-acre parcel that will be part of the initial location for the bison reintroduction. I ran the palm of my hand over the fuzzy tops of little bluestem by the roadside. John gestured at the ubiquitous clumps of these grasses; little bluestem is a bison favorite and they will “eat it right to the ground,” opening up space for a variety of sedges, grasses, and flowers. Many animals stand to benefit from the presence of bison as well, such as the upland sandpiper, whose nesting activities depend on large patches of low-lying vegetation. All in all, bison are “ecologically vital,” said John.

Thirty bison, which will be transported from South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park (a herd whose genetic bona fides have been approved), will initially be placed on the north side of Nachusa, on 700 acres. John told me that the herd will be allowed to expand to one hundred animals, eventually to roam 1500 acres of land.

“After that?” I asked John.

“We’ll just see.”

*     *     *     *     *

Nachusa will be unique east of the Missouri River in terms of using bison for prairie restoration, but there are other places in Illinois preparing for the return of bison and thinking about their value in restoring prairie and capturing public imagination. About an hour southwest of Chicago lies Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 20,000 contiguous acres of land in various phases of restoration. Bison will soon be reintroduced to 1200 of those acres.

The name Midewin is worth dwelling on. The term was adopted from the ritual curing societies that played an important role in Ojibwe, Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi cultures (the Potawatomi root of the word, Mide’, indicates something “mystically powerful”). Midewin was once the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, a full-scale military operation that manufactured and stored explosives for war. The land serves a very different purpose now, evoked in the name Midewin and captured by the tagline: “Where people and the prairie restore each other.”

I love that tagline. Such mutual restoration may help us excavate a history of relationships, prompting questions: What is good for the land? What can we do to make it so? What should we do? In short, how do we restore each other?

This is one way that bison can help us think (or rethink) the city. When one considers transportation (roads, rail, air), the exchange of goods, food and waste, energy and technology—where does a city actually end? Because of its rapid growth, Chicago was often described in its formative years with metaphors that evoked the youthful, muscular body of an adolescent. Michelangelo’s David gazing out upon a prairie Goliath that was destined to be laid low. We might, however, seek wisdom for our metropolis—and the landscape mosaic that it resides in—that goes beyond those teenage years of bravado.

Billions are expended, sometimes controversially, on transportation corridors that spider-web the landscape with impermeable pavement. I wonder, what kind of shift would be required for equivalent energy and finances to be appropriated for corridors for wildlife?

Large mammals like bison, because of their need for large habitats and their key roles in shaping those habitats, may point the way toward alternative kinds of transportation corridors—for the four-legged instead of the four-wheeled.

Before getting back into John’s truck, I take another moment to scan the rolling landscape of Nachusa and the nearby farms. For a moment I don’t see land. I see water. In my mind’s eye, I see islands of tallgrass prairie, a diverse tangle of life separated dot by dot like an archipelago. These islands are reaching out for one another through the corn, longing to be joined, linked, consummated.

*     *     *     *      *

It’s customary to hear environmental issues talked about as rearguard actions: how much we’ve lost, what we are now losing, what can be salvaged. But projects such as Nachusa flip that script. They call us to imagine what can be done, how much can be restored, what species we might welcome home. While driving back to the restored barn that serves as Nachusa’s main offices, John and I talked about how to draw attention to Nachusa and other prairie remnants that sorely need people to care for them.

John’s given this some thought. He pitched me his idea of The Bebb National Historic Prairie Trail. (Michael Bebb was a noted botanist in the mid-1800s whose family estate, Fountaindale, near where Nachusa is now, was the source for much rare plant collecting by Bebb and other famous botanists.) Throughout northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana, there are a number of prairie sites, John said, and they “tell the story of the tallgrass prairie. As a group they tell a bigger and more complete story than each individual preserve.”

No doubt a Bebb National Trail would present many challenges; existing prairie remnants are scattered across the region like the blots and dribbles of a Jackson Pollock painting. But the vision is a compelling one. John sees it as an educational opportunity, offering “a selection of places that people can travel to in an orderly fashion to learn about the prairie that once dominated the area.”

If a Bebb Trail were to exist, I think it would tell many stories. One of those stories would be of a people who knew this landscape contained more value than what could be profitably extracted from it—a people who felt that this landscape should be fully alive. “As of now, I am the only person behind this idea,” John confided. “It’s an idea that might develop and grow or it might die right here.”

I thought about the Bebb Trail as I pulled out of Nachusa and back onto the two-lane pavement. Manicured rows of corn flashed by. How many acres of Illinois can be restored to feed the prairie that feeds the bison that feeds the prairie? And how many acres will be transferred, through the wonders of chemistry, into high-fructose corn syrup? The landscape visibly reflects the values we hold dear. The bison who arrive at Nachusa this fall will inevitably shape the land; they can, if we are open to it, shape our values as well.

Special thanks to John Schmadeke for sharing his knowledge and taking the time to show me around. For further resources about Nachusa and bison see:

U.S. Geological Survey, “The Ecological Future of the North American Bison: Conceiving Long-Term, Large-Scale Conservation of Wildlife”

Friends of Nachusa Grasslands, “The Bison Are Coming”

The Nature Conservancy, Nachusa Grasslands

Facebook page for the Bebb Prairie Trail

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature Press. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
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