First Wild Bison Born in Illinois in Over 200 Years

   04.08.15

A tour group observing the small bison herd near in the Nachusa Grasslands in Northern Illinois witnessed history unfold on Monday after one of the visitors pointed out a small bison calf. According to The Chicago Tribune, Nachusa Grasslands Project Director Bill Kleiman was present during the tour and confirmed the calf through his binoculars. It is the first wild-born bison in the state since the early 1800s.

“From a historical standpoint, this hasn’t happened in Illinois in about 200 years,” restoration ecologist Cody Considine said.

The largest land mammal in North America, bison once roamed from the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Rockies in the west, dipping from Canada down into Mexico. Easy to hunt and a valuable source of meat, bison were nearly driven to extinction by waves of American settlers. By the 1830s, only one small herd of bison existed east of the Mississippi River. The construction of continent-straddling train rails even further depleted their numbers. By the start of the twentieth century, the millions of bison that once roamed the plains were reduced to just over 1,000, with 250 in captivity.

Thankfully, due to a staunch conservation campaign, the American bison is now present in all 50 states—even states that were not originally part of their range. Today, there are about half a million bison in the country, but only a small fraction of that is wild. In addition, many bison have been mixed with cattle to breed “beefalo” hybrids, leaving true bison relatively rare. According to biologists, the herd at Nachusa can trace its heritage back to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, where the isolated bison had little interaction with cattle, making the herd one of the most genetically pure in the country.

Experts at Nachusa said they expect the new calf to be one of several born this year, as some of the bison were already pregnant when they were transported from an Iowa preserve last year. Considine said both the calf and its mother look healthy, although workers have not approached the newborn to determine its gender yet. While it may be the first wild bison born in Illinois in nearly two centuries, other calves have been born in Illinois zoos, including two calves born last summer at the Brookfield Zoo. You can see a video of those bison below.

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