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Illinois

Make Way for Bison

Painting, demolition, electrical installation, construction: It’s all happening in the anticipation of native bison’s return to Nachusa Grasslands in fall 2014. In addition to the cosmetic changes you may notice in and around the prairie, there is also some behind-the-scenes work taking place that is every bit as critical to the success of this project as the tear-down of the old barn and the installation of the new bison corral.

This summer, scientists from the Conservancy, Northern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University, and the Illinois Natural History Survey joined forces to conduct extensive scientific sampling on the prairie. From stream structure to turtle tracking to insect collection, measurements of all shapes and sizes were taken to establish a baseline for the state of the prairie today, before bison are free to roam at Nachusa.

In order to understand exactly how that story unfolds, Conservancy staff need to measure and document the prairie in its current condition. To achieve that goal, several teams fanned out across the prairie in early July to collect data on every aspect of this complex habitat. The “Stream Team” spent time in Wade Creek, measuring how the water flows through Nachusa’s prairies, how deep and wide the creek is, and what kind of insects and other animals are present. Meanwhile, one team of scientists from Southern Illinois University tracked ornate box turtles by radio transmitter while researchers from Northern Illinois University collected comprehensive samples of prairie insects. All of their measurements will be recorded and compared against similar measurements taken after the bison have spent time in their new home at Nachusa. When compared side by side, this data will help the team understand exactly what effects bison will have had on the prairie.

“Once bison are reintroduced, we expect to see changes on the prairie, from which animals and insects flourish to which plant populations decline,” said Bill Kleiman, preserve manager. “But if we don’t take samples now, we will have no way of measuring what effect bison are having on the prairie.”

These changes will be welcomed at Nachusa. Without bison or other grazing animals on site, certain grasses begin to overtake native plants and flowers. The end result is a decrease in the insects, birds and animals that rely on those plants as a food source. Bison’s natural grazing behavior keeps the grasses in check, tilting the competitive advantage in favor of native wildflowers, which in turn attracts different species of insects, birds, and other animals back to Nachusa. In this way, bison help sustain the biodiversity of remnant and restored prairies over the long term.

“We know that bison will be good for the prairie. This is a unique opportunity to understand exactly how they influence the natural habitat. It’s a chance to study and learn, and from there, we can share those results with grassland restoration projects around the world,” said Jeff Walk, director of science in Illinois.
 

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