What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than spreading native plant seed in the bison pasture at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
After all, it really wasn’t all that long ago that we slaughtered the last wild bison in Illinois. The year may have been 1837 or 1808. Details are sketchy. But chances are the event was celebrated in much the same fashion as the the killing of the last bison in Ohio, in 1795, in which the proud bison hunter…
was so elated with this feat that without stopping to examine the animal he ran as fast as he could to the town, and, having announced his luck, came back, followed by the entire body of colonists, men, women, and children. They quickly formed a procession with musicians playing violins, flutes, and hautboys in front, the fortunate hunter proudly marching with his gun on his shoulder, and the animal swinging from poles thrust through between its tied feet, followed by the crowd, singing and rejoicing at the prospect of good and hearty fare.Joel A. Allen, The American Bisons, Living and Extinct, p 228
What a difference a couple hundred years makes. On October 23, 2015, a small crowd gathered to witness the return of bison to Midewin. There were a few short speeches, including one by Tom Tidwell, then Chief of the US Forest Service, who gave a well-deserved shout-out to the National Forest Foundation for its leadership role in bringing bison back to Midewin. Afterward, we gathered along the fenceline and watched as 27 bison galloped out a small holding pen into a 1,200-acre pasture built just for them.
There was no music. Not even any cheers, as I recall. What I most remember is an awed silence, broken only by the sound and the feel of thundering hoofbeats of Bison bison, our National Mammal, returning home, to the healing lands of Midewin.
Since then, if tripling their herd size is any indication, our bison are loving their return to the Illinois prairie — even if they don’t know that they are part of a twenty-year experiment in restoring the prairie.
That’s why we were sowing seed in the bison pasture yesterday — doing our part to restore an old farm pasture to native tallgrass prairie. Now it’s up to the bison to do their job — as they did for thousands of years across heartland of North America — to munch grass, recycle nutrients (poop, in layman’s terms), spread seed with their fur, cultivate the earth with their hooves and add wallows to the landscape with their humps. As thrilling as it was to watch the first bison release into Midewin, it was equally exciting to cast handfuls of native seed onto the snow and soil under the watchful eyes of several bison yesterday.
Sowing seed was especially fun since our seed mix included Silphium laciniatum, commonly known at cutleaf silphium or compass plant. As Chief Tidwell noted in his remarks back in 2015, Aldo Leopold wrote an essay about this signature plant of the tallgrass prairie, with its towering stalk, “spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.” Unfortunately, Leopold lamented, “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”
Well, a short year or so from now, come on out to Midewin where an even bigger herd of our BFFs (Bison Friends Forever) will tickle their bellies on blossoms sprung from the seed we sowed for them on Valentine’s Day.