Thursday, February 9th, 2023
Thursday, February 9th, 2023

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Bison project moving ahead with university, conservation partners

 Franklin Grove, Ill. — After a nearly 200-year absence, Illinois is once again a home where the buffalo – bison, that is – roam. 

And the animals are already settling in. The discovery of a bison calf  this spring surprised staff at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands prairie.

“The first one was definitely a surprise,” said Cody Considine, restoration ecologist at Nachusa.

In fact, it wasn’t even a staff member who got the first look.

“It was the first week in April, and Bill Kleiman had some friends visiting in town. They were looking around, and his friend said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a little one,’” Considine said.

After taking a look through binoculars, Kleiman confirmed that the first of the grasslands herd’s new members had arrived. The new calves for the herd, introduced to the restored Illinois prairie, now stand at 14. The herd numbers 30 adults with 18 mature cows, and Considine said that means they could see more new arrivals.

The bison and their babies don’t get any assists from human hands, even when calving.

“It’s all hands-off. Even if there was trouble, you have to let nature take its course. It’s natural selection,” Considine said.

The wild bison, trucked into the state from nature preserves in Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota in October 2014, are back in the Prairie State thanks to the efforts of a major wildlife conservation group. Southern Illinois University Carbondale is also playing a major role in the effort, and could be for some time to come. 

Clay Nielsen, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation with the Department of Forestry and the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at SIU, along with graduate student Julia Brockman, assisted with the effort with fieldwork, equipment and the expertise Nielsen has gained working with large mammal populations over the years. 

“Our goal is to study how bison use the prairie and to look at their impacts on prairie vegetation,” Nielsen said.   

Illinois once was dominated by a tall grass prairie, with bison roaming freely and a magnificent diversity of plant and animal life native to such an environment. With European settlement, however, much of the prairie turned over for agricultural use, and the bison were extirpated. Most researchers identify 1830 as the year bison officially disappeared from Illinois. 

TNC started the effort more than two decades ago, acquiring thousands of acres of agricultural land that had once been prairie and returning it to its natural state. Jeff Walk, science director with TNC in Illinois, said seven female bison have been fitted with GPS collars, which will form the basis for analyses conducted by SIU researchers. 

“It’s very important to The Nature Conservancy to use sound science to guide our conservation work and evaluate the effects of bison and grazing at Nachusa Grasslands and we have had long-standing and productive relationships with SIU researchers working there,” Walk said. “When we were searching for scientists to study bison ecology, the reputation and resources of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, and Dr. Nielsen’s expertise with telemetry and large wildlife species made this a really attractive partnership from our perspective. “

Nielsen spearheaded SIU’s effort, finding money for Brockman and coordinating some preliminary work by Sara Baer, professor of plant biology, who worked with TNC researchers taking baseline data on plant life, as well as building structures that keep bison off the vegetation in certain areas. The barriers, known as exclosures, provide control samples of plant life that the researchers can later compare to areas the bison are allowed into, allowing them to measure the animals’ impact on plant life. 

After researchers and others rounded up the bison at the other TNC preserves and brought them to Illinois, Brockman helped fit them with specialized GPS collars that email the animals’ positions using GPS data. 

“The old days of having to track large animals ourselves using radio signals and antennas are gone,” Nielsen said. “These are very expensive collars, and very useful in this situation.” 

SIU researchers are familiar with other conservation and restoration efforts occurring in the United States and other countries.  Several faculty have worked, with funding from the National Science Foundation, in the Konza Prairie ecosystem, which is managed by Kansas State University. 

“The goal is to have bison manage the prairie as we would have expected 200 years ago, before they were extirpated,” Brockman said. “We’re looking at bison habitat selection, what they like and how they use it, and what effects that has. Do they like areas that have been burned recently, or the hilltop remnant prairies? How do they live?” 

Brockman helped collar the female bison – an experience she described as “interesting,” given the large and powerful animal’s wild nature. Another aspect of her research involves that very interaction with humans. 

“We’re also looking at habituation to humans as they settle in. Do they avoid infrastructure?  How do they react when humans approach them?” 

Nielsen said that aspect feeds into how the long-term experiment of returning bison to their previous home on the prairies of Illinois might work out. 

“The Nature Conservancy is trying to manage them as a wild herd as much as possible, so we’re interested in how they react to humans, and whether that changes as time goes on. 

“These are high-profile animals, what we call one of the iconic, charismatic mega-faunal species. People may be standing at the fence watching them. Will that modify their behavior? So this situation is testing the notion of being able to develop these smaller enclosed bison populations in the Midwest and East. There are not a lot of examples available because bison are mostly a western phenomenon. So this will tell us something about how well this will work here.”

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