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Where the People and Prairie Restore Each Other

Leah Anderson
U.S. Forest Service
May 6, 2016 at 9:15am

A photo of Bison grazing near a trailhead on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Bison grazing near a trailhead on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

Meandering along a rustic trail surrounded by towering prairie grasses and blooming flowers, you feel a sense of simplicity as you come to a quiet overlook that slopes onto a bench where you can observe the activity of birds and small mammals surrounding a still pond. This beautiful prairie landscape leaves the viewer with an appreciation for nature’s wide open spaces.

And, amazingly, you’re in the middle of one of America’s most populated regions because this could only be the Midewin (mi-Day-win) National Tallgrass Prairie, the largest piece of contiguous open space in the Chicago metropolitan area, located just an hour’s drive from the heart of the Windy City.

Unique open space and wildlife viewing is not the only thing offered by the Midewin.

There are bison roaming this land and on May 7, the U.S. Forest Service will host the Midewin Bison Expedition. The free event allows visitors to get a unique close up view of bison in the event pasture.

Midewin exists today because of a major grassroots efforts by volunteers, partner agencies, businesses and organizations that all worked with the U.S. Forest Service to restore 19,000 acres of farm and industrial land to a mosaic of tallgrass prairie habitat. Restoration efforts included bridge replacement, streambank stabilization, creation of trails and picnic areas; and removal and disposal of old utility poles, railroad ties and other debris, planting native species, and much more.

A photo of a View of Midewin’s Prairie Creek from West Patrol Road

View of Midewin’s Prairie Creek from West Patrol Road. Photo credit: Witne Neil, U.S Forest Service

The first 5,000 acres were opened to the public in 2004, and today a total of 7,200 acres and 22 miles of trails are open. The grassland habitat supports the state’s largest population of upland sandpiper and provides refuge for other grassland birds such as the Bobolink and Logger head shrike. A plethora of recreational opportunities await visitors including bicycling, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, outdoor learning, picnicking and now bison viewing.

Since establishment of the Midewin, locals and staff have shared a vision of bringing bison back to the Prairie. Thanks to the dedication, work and support of the National Forest Foundation, partners and volunteers this vision was realized in November 2015 when four bulls and 23 cows were introduced to their new home.

The hope is that the re-introduction will have a positive impact on prairie health. Prairie staff will explore how bison grazing patterns support the tallgrass ecosystem and benefit grassland bird habitat. Ultimately, the experiment will determine if bison can be used as a restoration tool across the more than 1,200 acres they call home.

Inspired to make a trip to Illinois? If you can’t make the bison event on May 7, check out other fun and educational programs throughout the year. And, make sure the first stop on your visit is the Midewin’s Welcome Center, where you can find out the best areas for bison viewing and other information to make your prairie adventure a memorable one.

The Midewin’s beautiful and unique open spaces await you.

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