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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Prairie Dreams

I admit to being a bit of an odd duck when I was a kid. Instead of playing with dolls or mom's make-up, I spent as much time as I could outside, roaming the woods, farmlands, and the leftover bits of prairie around our home in rural northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. I spent my days watching deer, birds, and squirrels, but dreamed of being able to see that land, the tallgrass prairie, before the European settlers arrived.

What did it look like with grasses eight or more feet tall in places? What did it sound like to have the wind rustle the stalks or to have thousands of bison trying to outrun a prairie fire? Were there more birds, and was spring the raucous chorus that some folks claim it was?

It's unfortunate that I was born about 250 years too late to experience the real tallgrass prairie.

By the time I started walking, most folks had forgotten that northern Illinois even had bison in the past, let alone wolves, elk, black bear, and even cougar. But I knew, even if others had forgotten, and I dreamed of someday being able to recreate that healthy tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Unfortunately the dream died a slow death the older I became - the ever-expanding cities of Chicago and Milwaukee devoured the once-rural areas I called home. I didn't think I could convince the residents of the Chicago suburbs to abandon their homes so bison and 8 ft tall grasses could take over what once were their backyards!

Later as a college student I studied geology, but at every opportunity I took conservation biology classes and volunteered on small scale prairie restoration projects in central Illinois. The prairie snippets we restored were small - 30 acres to 300 acres - enough to give a visitor a glimpse of some native birds, prairie plants, and maybe a fox or coyote. Not large enough to host a herd of bison. And frankly, some of my fellow students thought I was crazy for even suggesting the return of large portions of the prairie, and its most famous resident, the bison.

I didn't think it was crazy at all to bring back the herds - it just made sense from my viewpoint (more about that later).