Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

All the National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites etc. are managed by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. Also within the Department of the Interior is the Fish & Widlife Service, in charge of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The National Forests are under the purview of the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture, however that doesn’t explain why the rather newly formed Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is managed by the Forest Service; I would expect that the resident bison and the tallgrass prairie ecosystem would be conducive to NPS management. But as it turns out, the area once housed part of the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, and in 1996 the Department of Defense transferred almost 20,000 acres to USFS who have been since managing the restoration of the historic habitat that is the first national tallgrass prairie in the country.

Restored tallgrass prairie on the right

Portions of Midewin (pronounced miDAY-win) were industrial while others were agricultural, and it was only after 8 years of restoration work that the first 5,000 acres could be opened to the public. Today, more than 13,300 acres are open to visitors for hiking, cycling, riding, birdwatching and hunting, with 34 miles of trail offering unique opportunities for outdoor recreation - just 60 miles south of Chicago.

First stop, the Visitor Center. In addition to maps, the knowledgeable folks there can tell you what is blooming, which migratory bird species have recently been spotted, as well as which quadrant the bison are in. Across from the Visitor Center is the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew headquarters; the Midewin Hotshots are the only Hotshot Crew in the Region, which means that you probably won’t see the crew as they are busy criss-crossing the country chasing fire and assisting local agencies with everything from prescribed burns to habitat management and wildfire training.

Batman and Bison at the Midewin Visitor Center

In addition to being one of the rare places to see tallgrass prairie, Midewin is also host to a herd of American bison. The last bison seen in Illinois was in 1808, but today over 1,000 acres in Midewin are home to an experimental herd that is being closely studied to learn how the bovids can aid native prairie restoration efforts. The bison range over four quadrants, and your stop at the Visitor Center will alert you as to which of the four they are currently in. On our visit they were in the southwest quadrant, easily visible from Hwy 53. Sure enough, we spotted their distinctive humps coming over a rise, and had we had the time we could have hiked out on the Route 53 Trail to the Southwest Bison Overlook for a closer look. For a live feed from the earthcam that looks out over an area the bison frequent, please visit the Midewin website or click here

Those dark bumps in the middle are bison. Or shrubs, you choose.

We opted for a short loop from the Iron Bridge Trailhead instead, the intense afternoon sun dismissing any idea of a multi-mile hike in the open prairie. As I mentioned previously, the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant was a former tenant (manufacturing munitions for the Korean and Vietnam Wars), and the Group 63 Trail allows visitors to view some of the old bunkers that were once used for storing ammunition. In 2010 the National Forest Foundation partnered with the USFS to remove drain tiles and roads to restore the prairie’s natural hydrology, as well as removing ammunition bunkers with the exception of a few in this particular area. We found one with the door open, and after the boys tested out the echo in the coolness of the interior we climbed to the top to take in the view. 

Inside one of the old munitions bunkers

While hiking, it is very important to remember that Midewin does have wild parsnip, the 4ft tall non-native plant that looks like dill or Queen Anne’s lace (but with yellow flowers). When touched, the plant's sap and the sun break down skin cells and tissues, making your skin extremely sensitive to sunlight; you get a bad sunburn everywhere the sap touches your skin. Easiest way to stay safe is to stay on the trail. The oils can be transferred to pet owners by their dog, and encounters with the plant frequently end in a visit to the emergency room.

However you shouldn’t let the parsnip deter you from hiking out on the tallgrass prairie on one of the many trails. Our midday trek was rewarded with the sighting of a Loggerhead Shrike, an endangered bird that hunts for prey over the open grasslands. Larger prey is impaled on sharp projections such as a thorn or strand of barbed wire, which anchors it for the shrike to tear off manageable pieces. The shrike will also use thorns to store food for later consumption, and so the barbed wire encircling the bison habitat is a great place to look for evidence of these rare birds in form of impaled insects. In addition to the loggerhead shrike, 148 other species of birds utilize the prairie for nesting, breeding or overwintering; 108 are permanent residents.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

More Midewin numbers: 18 endangered or threatened species, 40 aquatic species, 23 species of reptiles and 27 species of wild mammals. While the tallgrass prairie is the unique identifier, Midewin also has restored prairie savannah woodlands, restored marsh areas, seed production areas, and a pond. Check out the WW II era portable bridge on Bailey Bridge Trail that connects to the Wauponsee Glacial Trail, the 22.42 mile former railway that connects Joliet to Custer Park.

A huge shout-out & thank you goes to fellow blogger Barefoot Rose for the tour! Thanks to SR, PK & the boys for joining us at Midewin, for taking us to one of the best-kept secrets of the area (the Bathtub), and for feeding us. Next time we’ll try to time our visit with some cooler temperatures!

American bison photographed at Brookfield Zoo

PS For those looking to get a closer look at an American bison in the Chicago area, you can see the massive animals at Brookfield Zoo. And for more on prairie ecosystems, take the kids to the Peggy Breitbart Nature Museum!

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