When I first heard about the Nachusa Grasslands in the winter, I was immediately intrigued. Bison in Illinois? Close to Chicago? I had to find out more, so I started planning a visit. The Grasslands are a project of The Nature Conservancy, a private non-for-profit whose mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.
Much of northern Illinois is agricultural land, worked for many years, sometimes with respect for the environment, sometimes not. In every case, however, the farming replaces the native environment, which consisted primarily of tall grass prairies and oak savannahs, as far as I know (I should know more, but unfortunately I never studied Illinois much, thinking we weren’t staying here very long – my mistake on both counts).
For the last 25 years, the Nachusa Grasslands have been undergoing restoration, with bits and pieces added as available – it now extends nearly 3,000 acres and is home to a total of 700 native plant species and 180 species of birds.
As part of the restoration process, the Nature Conservancy is reintroducing bison to this area. Why bison? Bison were native animals so are well adapted to the weather and plants available for grazing and, unlike cows, don’t need much assistance from humans to survive. Bisons create wallows, shallow depressions they use to roll in – these wallows create shallow puddles that allow amphibians a place to reproduce and open areas for annual plants to grow without direct competition from the perennials surrounding them.
This should help create a wide diversity of plants and animals, a boon to any environment. The bison is the largest land mammal in North America and once roamed much of the United States – wholesale slaughter led to a small remaining population that luckily was saved by preservationists.
The bison currently live in their own fenced area and are doing well – a calf, believed to be the first born east of the Mississippi River in the last 200 years, arrived in April. The bison will be introduced to the larger area open for hiking in the near future, possibly this fall – I can’t wait to walk in the grasslands and see the bison unencumbered by a fence between us!
The Grasslands are in a quiet area, surrounded by farm fields, small towns, and not much you’d notice if driving through. The hiking is a blast, as there are some mown trails, some dirt roads for the maintenance vehicles, but otherwise one is free to roam across the open grasslands in any direction one desires. Small lakes and a stream add some water features to the rolling landscape.
There are so many different types of flowers I stopped trying to catalogue them after a while. Venturing off the trail, I was excited to come across a small patch of prickly pear – the second time in as many weeks. Turns out that a strain of prickly pear can be found in all 50 states – shows how much there is to know and how little I actually do know. That’s the fun of exploring.
After wandering around for a few hours, covering maybe half the open area (maybe), it was time to find the bison. Driving in, I had seen them in their fenced in enclosure, but opted to wait until after hiking to see them, reasoning that, in the future, it would be chance if I saw them while hiking. My patience was rewarded, as the herd was still relatively close to the road. Easily spooked, the herd kept moving as I approached the fence. While not terrified, the bison seemed leery of my presence, so after a few photos and some video, I headed back to the car, ready for lunch and the drive home.
If you want to visit, the grasslands are about two hours west of Chicago, off Interstate 88, so easily accessible. While visitor amenities today comprise of a small dirt parking lot, port potty and information board, plans are afoot for a more formal center, possibly sometime next year.