| Story by Meghan McMahon |
Centuries ago, when Illinois lived up to its nickname of “The Prairie State” much more than it does today, bison roamed the state freely, grazing on the grasses and plants that covered the landscape.
Bison are no longer part of the landscape in Illinois, but there are a few spots where you can see these mammoth mammals, where the herds are controlled as part of conservation programs. In Will County, a herd of bison lives at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington as part of a 20-year experiment in restoring the landscape to its native tallgrass prairie. A small herd also lives in Kane County at Fermilab in Batavia, and you can also see bison at Nachusa Grasslands in Lee and Ogle counties in north central Illinois.
Bison have a long and complicated history in the United States. Prior to 1800, it is estimated that between 30 million and 100 million bison lived across North America, with the highest concentration in the Great Plains, according to the National Zoo. Millions of these creatures were slaughtered, many by the U.S. government as part of an effort to destroy the livelihood of Native tribes across the Great Plains.
The bison population has recovered, but their range today is only about 1 percent of what it once was. The total bison population in the United States is between 400,000 and 500,000, with about 30,000 living in public and private herds that are managed for conservation purposes, the park service reports. About 400,000 bison are raised as livestock for their meat.
The only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times is Yellowstone National Park, where the population of these animals fluctuates between 2,300 and 5,500, according to the park service. These herds are significant to several Native tribes, which revere the bison as descendants of the herds that once freely roamed America’s grasslands.
In Illinois, bison herds roamed the landscape from the late 17th century until the early 19th century, according to the Illinois State Museum. According to historical accounts, they disappeared from the state by 1820 as a result of intensive hunting. They were absent from the state for more than 100 years until a small herd was introduced at Fermilab in 1969. The herd at Nachusa Grasslands was first introduced to a 1,500-acre conservation site in 2014, and Midewin introduced a herd at its tallgrass prairie in 2015.