WILMINGTON, Ill. -- Midewin is another word for "healing or balance.” And that is just what the Dept of Agriculture is doing on at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie about an hour South of Chicago.
It is home to more than 18,000 acres of prairie that has changed hands over the years.
Ecology experts are now trying to "heal" or restore it to how it was about 150 years ago. It's called the Bison Project and is scheduled to take about 20 years. Experts want to see if the 25 imported bison could help manage or manicure the landscape. The hope is that it brings back birds, bugs and plants that no longer flourish there.
Two years into the project, they are already seeing results.
"Having just come off a three day breeding bird survey in the bison pastures, it appears that some of the rarities, the numbers are up,” says Drew Ullberg, restoration team leader. "The amount of prairie left in Illinois is so miniscule yet a project like this is so important because there is less than one-one hundredth of 1% of the prairie left in Illinois.”
Prairie ecologist Bill Glass is ecstatic. 18 more years of this and glass hopes to deliver for the wildlife and its visitors a treat this state hasn't seen in centuries.
"It appears to be working," Glass says. "People can come up on this ridge and see what it was like 200 years ago."
Since the bison experiment began, those 25 or so bison have doubled. There are more than 50. 17 of them are calves. They largely travel together and eat off the land. The bison are not corralled or chipped. They do as they please where they please on 1200 acres of land.
Wetlands expert Paul Botts explains the effects of the iconic horned mammal is two fold.
"They chewed up the prairie plants and insects and smaller animals. Birds evolved from that, adapted to that. You need that for a healthy prairie,” Botts says. “And they bring the people. Visitorship has zoomed in the last two years.”
On the largest conservation site of any kind in the area, the evasive bison are doing the heavy lifting and eating while healing the prairie.
And they are just getting started.
July is National Bison Month and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is celebrating. If you want to see the bison, bring your binoculars, maybe a bike to get around the prairie a little easier.
Here's a list of events:
Volunteer-led Ranger Hikes
Every Saturday and Sunday in July – and through November 4, National Bison Day, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Join a Midewin Ranger for a hike to the bison pasture. As usual, you may or may not spot the bison, but you will learn about Midewin’s unique past, present and future in a fun, interactive way, and learn about the dynamics of these fascinating creatures. No reservations required. Meet at the Iron Bridge Trailhead.
Midewin by Auto
July 8, July 22, 10 a.m.
Explore Midewin by car caravan to view restored wetlands and prairie and observe wildlife. Find out why ecological restoration is so important while experiencing Midewin’s best examples of restored prairie. Learn about the future of Midewin and what that means for wildlife and recreation. Visit one of the remaining ammunition bunkers for a glimpse into the past. Travel is on unimproved roads; expect potholes and gravel.
Midewin for Kids – Batty Evening
Wednesday, July 19, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Learn about the flying mammal that eats mosquitoes! Become an expert and learn how to tell between myth and fact. Decorate a bat house to take home. (One per family.) Take a short hike looking for these tiny, wonderful creatures of the night. Wear long sleeved shirts and pants and bring bug repellant.
Twilight Bike Tour
July 8, 6 p.m.
Tour open and closed areas of Midewin by bicycle. Expect to see an abundance of wildlife which may include deer, turkey, grassland birds, and maybe a coyote or two. Since at least part of the route will be on gravel surfaces, “fat” tires are recommended.
Midewin for Kids – Pond Life
Tuesday July 18, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Uncover an amazing world of creatures that live in ponds. Use nets to scoop up critters. Find out about life under water. Learn about insects, amphibians, and mammals. Dress for getting a bit dirty.
Midewin for Kids – The Life of a Butterfly
Tuesday July 25, 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Come discover the life cycle of butterflies. Learn about habitats, butterfly nectar plants and host plants. Be ready to learn, explore and net butterflies.
Evening Hike on the Prairie
Wednesday July 26, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Find out what is blooming this time of year. Hear the wind rustle through prairie grass as the sun begins to set. Enjoy the scents only encountered on an evening stroll on the prairie. Great for families.
Prehistory on the Prairie
July 29, 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Midewin is working to restore the tallgrass prairie, but what was life like for those who lived here before Euro-American agriculture, when the land was mostly tallgrass? Archaeologists from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago are continuing their work on a Midewin archaeological site that offers just such insights. Come and see archaeologists at work as they learn about the people who lived here and the environment in the last years before Marquette and Joliet.