It’s not often we in Illinois have much chance for optimism.
We’ve got a long history of governors being imprisoned for various crimes, our state is broke, our taxes are high, and we have the whole milieu of “corrupt Chicago politics.” It’s enough to make us depressed without the really long winters—especially this year’s which seemed to linger way passed its allotted time.
But then there’s the spring—renewal, birth, and awakening. As the daffodils raise their sunny yellow heads; as the fat robins hop around sodden, mushy front yards searching for plump earthworms; and as we gradually, tentatively trust that Mother Nature is finally done with winter and we put our snow shovels and parkas away for another season, we inhale a big deep breath of “spring” and exhale the stress and drama of “winter.”
Speaking of birth and awakening, here in Illinois, we have the Nachusa Grasslands—about 95 miles west of Chicago. Nachusa is an aggressive attempt at prairie restoration, with 3,500 acres set aside near Franklin Grove, IL as a preserve; wild bison occupy 500 acres of that area.
And on April 6, 2015, Mother Nature and a bison cow gave Nachusa—and the winter-weary citizens of Illinois—a gift.
The first bison calf born to wild bison in the State of Illinois since the animals disappeared from the state in the 1830s (that’s 185 years, if you’re counting). The beauty of this particular herd of 30 bison is that they are completely wild. They haven’t been interbred with cattle and are also genetically diverse within the entirety of the bison species. They’re direct descendants of an original herd started in the 1900s.
Teddy Roosevelt had a hand in developing that herd, which is treated as wild—meaning that aside from a once-yearly medical check, which takes about a minute, these animals are left to do what bison do.
This restoration project is important to Illinois for many reasons aside from any increase in tourist dollars. Bison, which once spread across something like 22 million acres (about 60%) of Illinois, have unique grazing patterns beneficial to prairie lands. Illinois has only about 2,500 acres of so-called “pristine” prairie remaining, and luckily, there are organizations in the state that are determined to hang onto that acreage and increase it if they can. As bison graze, they encourage growth of more native plants. As the prairie returns to its ancient state, more insects, birds and other animals come back to make their homes here.
Eventually, Nachusa will be home to around 13 more bison and will expand the bison grazing area to around 1,500 acres. There will be interpretive kiosks placed strategically, and while everyone’s interested in the bison, they’ll be kept safe from people. Researchers are studying the effect they’ll have on the prairie, and their reaction to human behavior, though true to the mission to keep the animals wild, human interaction will be severely limited. And they’re not naming the new calf.
A lot of things happen in Illinois in the spring. The snow melts; the detritus of winter shows up under the slush; we get used to sunshine on a daily basis; and we eventually forget that just a few weeks ago, we were complaining about the cold, the freak April snow, and that “spring seems late this year.”
This little bison calf is a harbinger of a new spring in Illinois; one where the state finally realizes a dream to bring back some of the historic glory of the prairie. One calf at a time.
Author: Pat Perrier
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: via the author