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Bison back on the prairie?

Nachusa Grasslands plans to buy a herd of hairy foragers

FRANKLIN GROVE – The focus may have been on fall at Nachusa Grasslands annual Autumn on the Prairie, but there was also a lot of buzz about the bison the preserve plans to establish.

“With the bison coming, it’s exciting,” said Jean Guarino of Oak Park, as she and her husband, Victor, examined prairie plants on one of the preserve’s trails.

“We’ve volunteered before and will again to collect seeds. We helped pull nails out of the timbers when the old barn was purchased,” Victor said. “The bison coming is very exciting.”

The Guarinos were among about 660 visitors Saturday who were greeted by two large wooden bison billboards that explained why the bison, commonly known as buffalo, are being added to the 3,100-acre prairie owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy.

If enough money is raised, the 60 to 80 herd is scheduled to arrive next fall.

Why bison?

According to Prairie Smoke, Nachusa Grasslands’ stewardship report for 2012:

“Bison grazing will sustain our past and current efforts. Every year staff and volunteers spend countless hours in the field collecting thousands of pounds of seed from more than 225 species of forbs, grasses, and sedges in an effort to convert agricultural lands back to tallgrass prairie. Bison grazing at Nachusa will protect this investment of financial resources and hard work by assuring that the vast array of native forbs will not be displaced by dominant grass species in future decades.”

One of the displays Saturday also helped explain: “Bison are the keystone species of tallgrass prairies. They strictly eat grass, which gives forbs (flowers) a competitive advantage over the dominant grasses. Without grazing, the grass slowly pushes out some forbs.”

Back at the display tents, attendees also could try throwing an atlatl spear, chase butterflies, watch artists paint the prairie or visit educational displays showing animals and insects that live on the prairie.

Dusti Batsch, 13, of Dixon, remained calm as The Professor, a 25-year-old fox snake, made her way up the girl’s sleeve before exiting at the bottom of her sweatshirt.

“That’s a good one. I’ve never had that happen,” said Sally Baumgardner, Nachusa volunteer and The Professor’s “keeper”.

“It’s cool,” Dusti said. “I remember seeing The Professor when I was little and I came here.”

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