Return of the bison for ecological and commercial reasons

Bison have been reintroduced to the Nachusa Grasslands. (Photo by Becky Hartman, Nachusa Steward)
Bison have been reintroduced to the Nachusa Grasslands. (Photo by Becky Hartman, Nachusa Steward)

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In 1931, a severe drought hit the central and southern plains. Crops died and dust from the fields began to blow. Corn yields fell dramatically across the area. In Nebraska between 1930 and 1934, rainfall dropped 27 percent and crop yields fell 75 percent. The drought lasted throughout the decade.

Today, with nearly all of California in the midst of a severe drought, questions arise regarding what impact a major drought would have on our modern agricultural system.

Some scientists who lived through the Dust Bowl talked about the importance of maintaining prairie ecosystems, which gave rise to the rich soils of the Midwest. They stressed the need to understand the structure and function of these ecosystems so society would develop the knowledge and skill to restore them as they degrade and erode away under the stress of modern agriculture.

The prairie preservation movement in Illinois stimulated people to locate and protect small parcels of remaining prairies. Out of those early efforts grew a recognition that much larger holdings were essential, which led to large-scale efforts such as Nachusa Grasslands’ more than 3,000 acres.

The work at Nachusa Grasslands is ecological and, in part, addresses the question of long-term sustainability of a prairie habitat and the role of bison within them. The restoration is now of sufficient size to reintroduce bison into the landscape to determine what effect these formerly abundant species will have on the restored prairie habitat. They are expected to reduce the density of grasses, allowing more colorful forbs to flourish. Their dung will attract insects, which, in turn, increases bird diversity. They will produce barren spots into which annuals can become established, and produce wallows, or wet sites, which will accumulate water, increasing plant and animal diversity.

According to Bill Kleiman, site manager of the Nachusa Grasslands: “The reason we want to implement grazing is that grasslands in North America and maybe the world evolved with dry climate, fire set by humans or lightning, [and grazing]; so the grazer we chose was the American bison, or buffalo, because it produces a patchy distribution of grazing across the preserve producing more diverse habitat for birds, snakes, turtles and other animals and plants.”

Russell Brunner, restoration manager for the Byron Forest Preserve, added, “Bison disturb the ground, create wallows or wet pools and bare spots — micro habitats which will benefit annuals.”

There is also increasing interest in Illinois and Indiana regarding raising bison for commercial meat production. Roughly 30 bison-raising operations are in Illinois with small herds of 40 or fewer. While currently more costly than beef, there is a growing demand for the meat, as it provides a high-protein, low-fat source of meat.

A growers’ organization has been developed that plans to establish a network of veterinarian services to maintain herd health. Another goal is that of establishing an annual live auction so growers can buy and sell animals from one another. The organization will offer The Midwest Bison Symposium Nov. 20-21 at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for those interested in learning about raising bison for commercial purposes.

As we look out over the miles and miles of corn and soybean fields, our food future appears secure; it is easy to assume that will always be the case. But droughts, blights and agriculture’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels, irrigation and water does raise the question of the sustainability of modern agricultural practices in the face of population growth.

Raising bison takes advantage of their tolerance for cold weather and their ability to thrive on native grasslands. Depending on how the industry develops, it could become a true form of sustainable agriculture.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Nov. 5-11, 2014, issue

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