FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill. — For a look at how the Prairie State once looked and got its nickname, explore The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands, about 164 miles north of Decatur.
There you will find prairie plants, some of which are rare and even threatened, along with oak savanna woodlands, wetlands and a herd of bison.
Grassland birds, such as grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks and dickcissels, will provide a background serenade. You’re also likely to see turkey vultures or a red-tailed hawk soar overhead.
“Nachusa is a place of beauty, serenity and natural history,” said Sherrie Snyder of rural Carlock, co-president of the Illinois Prairie Chapter of Wild Ones. “To me, it’s a success story of how to preserve and restore native habitats.”
The day started as any visit to Nachusa should, at the visitor center at 2075 S. Lowden Road. Although there is no building, the center has information panels, a shady place for lunch, composting toilets and a hand pump for drinking water. It also overlooks part of the 1,500 acres where the buffalo roam – actually bison.
Bill Kleiman, Nachusa’s project manager, said there were 20 calves in the herd at last count and about 100 overwinter on the range. Bison play an important role by controlling grasses through grazing, he said.
“We’re trying to keep them as wild as possible,” said Kleiman, so contact is kept to a minimum. Each fall, a veterinarian evaluates their health and they are vaccinated.
With rolling terrain and the large expanse, bison are not always easy to view. Hiking within the bison enclosure is prohibited – for their protection and yours.
But you are free to roam other parts of Nachusa, even venturing off the trails. That’s a good reason to wear sturdy shoes, long pants and bug spray.
From the visitor center, the Wild Ones group went to Clear Creek Knolls, which includes a 21/2-mile loop trail through open prairie with – you guessed it – a small knoll or hill.
Our second stop was the Stone Barn Savanna, which had a mixture of habitats: woodlands, wetlands and prairie. A great blue heron appeared to have some success fishing in the wetlands.
This area is one of Kleiman’s favorites. “It’s pleasant to have big trees overhead,” he said.
“It’s very showy here right now,” he said of the blooming plants.
Another nearby place worth visiting is Franklin Creek State Natural Area, northwest of Franklin Grove, 1872 Twist Road. It includes several picnic areas, a shady trail along Franklin Creek and a reconstructed grist mill.
Much of the area was agricultural land when The Nature Conservancy started the project.
“When we were thinking about doing a landscape-scale project 35 years ago, that was a radical thought,” said Kleiman. Since 1986, more than 3,500 acres have been protected through acquisition or conservation easements.
Among the creatures benefiting from the project are the Blanding’s turtles, listed as endangered in Illinois. The site has the mix of wetlands and sandy uplands they like for breeding.
Researchers have put trackers on turtles to see where they nest. Then they either protect the eggs from predators with cages or take the eggs to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, where they are placed in incubators, explained Kleiman.
Once those eggs hatch, the Lake County Forest Preserve raises them until they are larger and more able to be released at Nachusa and survive.
Volunteers also work to keep invasive plants at bay.
Kleiman said, “We humans have a role to play to take care of our natural areas.”
Snyder said she hopes visitors to Nachusa will “come away with an appreciation of the value of such restoration efforts and support these efforts any way they can – volunteer, donate, spread the word.”