Nachusa Grasslands: Home for both bison and volunteers


Photos by Michaela Meaney/MEDILL

By Michaela Meaney

Chicagoan Jay Stacy saw the ad in the paper – a call for volunteers to restore damaged prairie in Franklin Grove, a remnant of the vast grasslands that once covered Illinois. That was 20 years ago and Stacy, then 47, had never heard of taking destroyed land and reversing the harm.

Stacy telephoned the Illinois Nature Conservancy, owners of the then 250-acre site called Nachusa Grasslands, and asked, “Once land is destroyed, can you do that?”

The Nature Conservancy believed it could. With that hope, Stacy picked up, moved to farm country and then settled into a seasonal campground, 100 miles west of Chicago just outside of Rochelle. He lived in a trailer for the first two years before taking up permanent residence in the city of Oregon.

Nachusa has grown to over 3,500 acres in size, filled with wildflowers and prairie grasses like blazing star, gayfeather and little blue stem. Now the grasslands are welcoming a herd of 30 genetically pure bison that moved in this October. They are part of the transformation to return the prairie to its original state. At the start of October Nachusa opened its gates to 20 bison. Then eight more came. Then the final two.

While the reintroduction of bison is itself a magnificent feat, what’s more telling is the volunteer effort that got them there.

“People that are gone now, people that are dead now,” Stacy said. “Hundreds and hundreds of people have helped in the restoration over the last 25 years.”

Stacy explained that the land purchased by the Nature Conservancy is 1986 wove together scattered remnant prairie, areas that were too difficult to plow by farmers, as well as wetlands and land with remaining agricultural tile used to drain farmland.

Since then volunteers have planted and collected several species of wildflowers and seeds. Volunteers have also reintroduced controlled fires, a natural process the prairie must go through in order for dead plants to be removed to make way for new ones. Volunteers at Nachusa work approximately 5,000 hours per year, according to Cody Considine, Nachusa’s restoration ecologist. He also said they collect around 2,500 pounds of seed – and that’s all done by hand.

“It’s definitely a culture of people working for a commonality of restoring the land,” Considine said.

For Stacy, seeing the damaged prairie return to life gives him a sense of a turning tide. “The thing here is that it’s reversal. To me that’s stunning. It’s been a 25 year miracle.”

And since 1986, Nachusa has been prepping the prairie for a major event: the return of the bison.

MAKE WAY FOR THE BISON

The 20 bison that arrived at the beginning of October came from Broken Kettle, another Nature Conservancy preserve near Sioux City, Iowa. The eight bison came from Lame Johnny Creek Ranch in South Dakota, and the final two were from Dunn Ranch in Missouri. All 30 originally came from Wind Cave National Park, near Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Getting the bison to Nachusa has been a goal “pretty much since the beginning,” according to Considine, who joined Nachusa in 2005. “I feel pretty relieved,” he said, after returning from the drive to South Dakota to bring in the last herd. “A little tired, excited, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

Nearly 40 million bison once roamed America. Hunted and killed to make way for settlers, just 1,000 remained by 1900. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that efforts to save the population now make North America home to about 500,000 bison, but just 20,000 are “truly wild.”

These bison are not to be confused with buffalo. In fact, buffalo are not even native to North America. So what about all the songs and images of buffalo in the U.S.? Complete misnomers – the main species of buffalo are actually native to Africa and Asia, but American bison have been mistakenly called buffalo for their similar appearance.

“We know that we played a hand in them being gone,” said Gelasia Croom, senior media relations manager at the Illinois Nature Conservancy. “It’s also a responsibility, and we need to take care of the land in the best way that we can, and this is just another great tool.”

Bison are ‘tools,’ in the sense that they naturally maintain the prairie.

“So the bison come in and eat that down to the ground and all your other species come in and start to thrive,” Stacy said, who called bison “grass eating machines.”

“We couldn’t mimic the grazing and the bison kind of complete that restoration circle,” Considine said. As the bison graze, they also create divots into the ground because of the shape of their hooves, which is an opportunity for new seeds to germinate. Seeds can also be in bison waste as well as their coats, which fall off and are replanted.

“It’s like a ripple effect once they’re out there,” Stacy said. “They’re an important necessary component to the prairie with minimal maintenance.”

When the bison arrived, they were kept in a custom-made coral, designed to hold up to 250 bison. They were vetted and tested to maintain genetic-pureness, from blood and tail hair samples.

Brian Bielema also saw an ad in a newspaper, and recently came to Nachusa to help in the bison effort. “It’s just impressive to have that here in Illinois,” Bielema said. “Without bison, this isn’t quite the prairie that it once was, so why not bring them back?”

ONE BIG FAMILY

Bielema now joins a group of dedicated volunteers who donate their free time to Nachusa.

As the bison return to their original home, volunteers also find a sense of place at the grasslands.

“I like the community of people here,” said Dee Hudson, volunteer photographer and page and layout designer for Prairie Smoke, an annual magazine released by Nachusa. “It kind of reminds me of the rural community I grew up in. People help one another, there’s a common goal.”

That sense of community binds the volunteers, many like Stacy who are retired. But not everyone comes out to Nachusa after finishing a career – some come looking to start one.

“We all come out here for selfish reasons, but I think that it’s the community of people that keeps them coming back,” said Mike Saxton, one of just six restoration technicians – a seasonal position at Nachusa.

Saxton started as a seasonal worker in 2007, then returned while he was in graduate school at Northern Illinois University. He even completed his thesis research at Nachusa.

“Somehow I always keep coming back,” Saxton said.

FUTURE FOR BISON AND NACHUSA

For now the bison at Nachusa inhabit a 500-acre area, but by next fall Nachusa plans to open up more land to create a 1,500-acre area for the bison to roam, according to Considine. By that time there will be more of them as well. Considine explained that several of the cows – the female bison – are pregnant and will give birth to their calves sometime in May or June.

As the bison welcome new members into their “family,” Nachusa will also welcome the public to get a closer look at these iconic animals.

“We’ll have a visitor’s center, and that’s slated for next year,” said Croom, who explained it might be open as early as fall 2015, but is still unsure of the exact date. “We’re hoping that over time people will be able to come out and have a little more access.” Croom explained the center would have information about the bison and the opportunity to gain a closer look.

As of now the only public view of the bison is from the country roads. However the area the bison are in now does not allow for them to roam all the way to the edge of the road, and a six-foot, high-tensile electric fence protect the bison and their prairie.

As the bison settle in, volunteers continue to restore the prairie and make way for more to come in the future.

“I think it’s a wonderful dream to actually put back nature’s habitat,” Stacy said. “It’s got a tremendous volunteer community, people who are doing it for the love of it. When people do stuff for the love of it, it shows up in the product.”

The Nachusa Grasslands Preserve is located at 8872 S. Lowden Rd., Franklin Grove. 815-456-2340.

Photos by Michaela Meaney/MEDILL

Captions:

A bull – the term for a male bison – grabs a bite to eat while in the coral. “The prairie endures with grazers,” says Jay Stacy, a volunteer at the Nachusa Grasslands, now home to 30 bison. The bison currently graze on a 500-acre area but by next year that should expand to 1,500 acres.

A bull stares down the camera after getting a drink inside the coral. It’s important not to get too close to the bison, Stacy says, for a bison may charge and injure either a person or itself.

“If you build it, he will come,” goes the phrase from the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams.” And the bison have already come – 30 arrived to the Nachusa Grasslands throughout the month of October.

Mike Saxton, a restoration technician at Nachusa, explains the work that went into creating this 6-foot, high-tensile electric fence. Volunteers and workers at Nachusa spent the entire summer in 2014 constructing and placing the fence; each post is actually old oil field piping from Mississippi that the crew cut down and repurposed to create the fence.

Saxton has worked on and off with Nachusa since 2007, and has met many volunteers during his time. “We’re a crew, we’re a team, and you really feel that,” says Saxton, in regard to the work he does with volunteers.

Jay Stacy, a volunteer who has spent over 20 years with Nachusa, walks with a map in hand to show just how much land belongs to the Nachusa Grasslands. When Stacy first started, Nachusa, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy, consisted of only 250 acres. Now the site measures nearly 3,500 acres.

Stacy shows new volunteer, Brian Bielema, a map explaining how much land belongs to Nachusa. “I’m retired now,” Bielema says, who answered an ad in the paper to volunteer with bison management.  “I’m only a ways away and I can donate some of my time.” Bielema joins a group of dedicated volunteers who help run Nachusa; the Nature Conservancy only employs two full-time workers at the site.

Stacy crouches down behind little blue stem, one of the most common prairie grasses that make up Nachusa. Volunteers like Stacy help collect little blue stem, along with other wildflowers and grasses, in an effort to restore the prairie. On collecting seeds by hand Stacy says, “You’re like little Fed-Ex drivers. You drive around to where they are.”

Look out at this prairie and imagine it filled with bison, Stacy says. You don’t have to image that any longer because the bison have already arrived, and will graze on the pictured area as more land at Nachusa is opened up next year.