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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).

Bison. For some reason, I've had an affinity for these huge animals since I was very young. Pronghorns also fascinated me, as did wolves and griz, but not as much as the American bison. For me, they are the defining animal members of the prairie. They are big, tough as nails, able to weather 100 F in the summer and -30 F (or colder) in the bleakest of winters, yet they are capable of great tenderness, playfulness, power, and speed. They have attitude.

In their pre-1800s numbers, the American bison were the most numerous single species of large land mammal on earth.

Think about that for a second.

Bison were more numerous than the African wildebeast. How many of us pay thousands of dollars to travel to Tanzania to see those great herds? Or watch nature films about Africa with awe? All of those animals...great herds of them roaming across the Serengeti. Wildebeasts braving the rain-swollen rivers during migration. Elegant antelope running and jumping high to avoid predatory lions and wild dogs.

We had something very similar in America not so long ago. Less than ten human generations have passed since the American plains were, in places, black with herds of bison. Pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk roamed the plains and forest edges. Prairie dogs churned the soil. Wolves, foxes, coyotes, black bear, ferrets, grizzlies, and cougar maintained the balance. Prairie chickens, sage grouse, hawks, eagles, owls, turkeys, sparrows, meadowlarks, and countless other bird species brought life and sound to the air.

I don't blame you if you're unable to picture this. It's tough for those of us alive now to  imagine standing on our American prairie when a herd of bison were spooked from a storm or fire. If you were close enough, you'd be able to feel the ground shaking from the pounding of a million feet. If you visit Yellowstone National Park, you'll get a small sense of what it might have been like to see the herds - a very small sense - but there are not enough bison in Yellowstone to let you experience that thunder. For now, that's a thing of the past on this continent.

Africa had nothing on America, that is until Caucasian settlers decimated the bison herds. Numbers of bison went from over 60 million (60,000,000) to less than 1,000 in just a couple of human generations.

Absolute carnage.

And I, in my youthful daydreams, wanted to bring back that feeling of a real prairie, complete with thundering herds. Crazy you say?

Perhaps not...I would argue that now is the perfect time to resurrect this dream and begin the immense and rewarding work of making it a reality.

To be continued...

All text and graphics copyright Nancy Rynes, 2011. You may not copy or reprint any of this material without my written consent. Be nice, don't plagiarize.

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