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Where the buffalo roam (once again)

September 29, 2014

Photo of a bisonNIU student Angela Burke hails from blue-collar Burbank, Ill.

With its prevalence of mom-and-pop restaurants and the regular roar of low-flying passenger jets from Chicago’s Midway Airport nearby, the southwest suburb certainly seems more city.

So, for a week in August, it must have seemed to Burke like she was on another planet – or perhaps living in a time warp – as she stepped out each morning onto the front porch of a little yellow farmhouse, a cup of coffee in hand.

A symphony of songbirds. A pink-haloed sunrise. A misty, endless prairie of tall grass, dotted with sunflowers, forbs and coneflowers in shades of pink, purple and yellow.

Welcome to the gloaming hours of dawn at Nachusa Grasslands preserve, near Dixon, Ill., just a 45-minute drive from the Northern Illinois University campus. It provides a stunning reminder of what the “Prairie State” looked like once upon a time.

“It was breathtaking and overwhelming,” says Burke, a 26-year-old graduate student in biology who spent six days and nights in a small researchers’ residence at the preserve. “It truly felt like I had been shot into the past.”

Angela Burke

Angela Burke

Burke, along with a host of other NIU student and faculty researchers, couldn’t be more excited about a new remnant of prairies past that was recently added to the Nachusa Grasslands scenery: the magnificent bison, the largest mammal on the North American continent.

Quick note on bison vs. buffalo: Both are acceptable terms for the layman – after all, the legendary showman wasn’t dubbed Bison Bill. But the two main buffalo species actually reside in Africa and Asia. Bison is the correct scientific term for the North American species, which was last known to roam Illinois in the early 1800s.

While Illinois is officially known as the Prairie State, the sad irony is that 99.9 percent of its prairie has been lost to agriculture and development, says NIU professor Holly Jones, who holds a joint appointment with biological sciences and NIU’s Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability, and Energy.

Owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization, Nachusa Grasslands demonstrates how prairies can make a comeback. World-renowned for its restoration strategies, the preserve’s 3,500 acres also have become a living laboratory for NIU scientists and students.

And research efforts are ramping up with the reintroduction of the shaggy behemoths of the Great Plains, which once numbered in the tens of millions nationwide before becoming nearly extinct.

“Nachusa is reintroducing bison to help regain the ecosystem function lost in their absence,” Jones says. “Native grazers such as bison historically helped maintain prairie, but they were driven to near-extinction through hunting, agriculture and development.”

NIU Professor Holly Jones

NIU Professor Holly Jones in one of her laboratory’s study plots at Nachusa Grasslands.

In early October, Nachusa welcomed 20 new bison from a genetic line saved by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, creating the first wild herd east of the Mississippi River. The hope is to grow the herd to 100 animals.

Experts believe the Nachusa bison will further restore the prairie’s biodiversity. For example, a landscape with a patchwork of both grazed and ungrazed areas provides habitat for more species of birds. Wallows created by bison tend to puddle during springtime and create breeding areas for amphibians. Insects feed off bison dung, expand their populations and become meals for birds and other small animals.

Scientists want to know more about this web of life.

“We know a lot about how vegetation does under prairie restoration and management with bison grazing, but we have very little information on how animals respond,” Jones says. “This is the first time bison have been reintroduced to restored prairie, so our research will for the first time document the effects of bison restoration on animal communities that are themselves responding to plant restoration.”

Jones’ NIU laboratory is beginning studies on how the bison’s presence will effect populations of grassland birds, small mammals and deer. She has six students working on projects, including Burke, who this past August trapped and tagged voles, ground squirrels and several varieties of mice. Burke is returning for additional trappings this month and other times over the course of the school year.

“I took one of Dr. Jones’ classes as a student-at-large, and she was truly an inspiring teacher,” Burke says. “It led to me taking on her small-mammal project.

“I was drawn to this study because, being an Illinois native and knowing that prairies are (among) the most threatened ecosystems globally, I feel like a piece of my own heritage has been lost,” Burke adds. “So with this project, I feel like I’ll be giving back to the state that I love.”


Senior Ryan Blackburn helped trap small mammals at Nachusa
as part of an Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship.

Meanwhile, other NIU professors are lending their research expertise to Nachusa and using the prairie to create hands-on learning experiences for scores of students.

“It’s a very interesting preserve to study right now,” says Nachusa project manager Bill Kleiman, who also happens to be an NIU alumnus. “This is new for us, for Illinois and the Midwest, and we want to study the effects of the bison on plants, insects, birds, animals and streams.”

Kleiman said three state universities and several from outside Illinois are involved in research at the preserve.

“We’ve been trying to line up researchers to gather baseline data and help us record what happens over time,” Kleiman says. “NIU features prominently among the scientists working here. In terms of numbers of researchers, it’s the biggest.”

Those NIU scientists include Melissa Lenczewski (water quality) in geology; David Goldblum (biodiversity), Lesley Rigg (vegetation dynamics) and Michael Konen (soil) in geography; and Richard King (reptiles), Wesley Swingley (soil microbiota) and Nicholas Barber (insects) in biological sciences.

Not only will society benefit from the work, but so do students who gain opportunities to learn alongside experts in the field.

“I’ve gained experience by learning how to collect samples and working with professors and other students, and I’m also gaining a better understanding of the prairie itself,” says Rachel Farrell of DeKalb. The 40-year-old, non-traditional student is a senior Environmental Studies major.

Professor Nicholas Barber (left) leads a field trip to Nachusa Grasslands.

Professor Nicholas Barber (left) leads a field trip to Nachusa Grasslands.

Farrell received an Undergraduate Research Assistantship to work with Professor Goldblum and has been visiting the grasslands regularly since May, monitoring soil respiration. She’s eager to see the benefits that will be derived from the addition of bison.

“The potential for what we can learn is huge,” she says. “And the idea we’re bringing this native animal back to this area is fantastic to me.”

While many students work one-on-one with NIU scientists, entire classes also visit the Nachusa Grasslands for engaged-learning experiences. Professor Barber took two ecology classes to the preserve earlier this semester.

“It’s an invaluable resource for field trips, to be able to let students experience a high quality prairie ecosystem like this,” says Barber, whose laboratory has been conducting research at Nachusa for the past three years.

“We’ll be working out there for many years to come, so I see this as a way to recruit students,” he adds. “Nachusa gives us a glimpse of what the prairies looked like hundreds of years ago. Having the bison grazing there makes that view even more exciting.”