Studying bison

Studying bison -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate student Julia Brockman, left, works with two others to prepare special collars fitted with global positioning system technology. The collars, fitted on several female bison, will send back their location via email. The data will help SIU researchers learn more about how the newly reintroduced bison manage the prairie where they live. Brockman will earn her master’s in forestry during the next two years in part by assisting in the research for The Nature Conservancy. (Photo provided)

November 07, 2014

Researchers study bison return to Illinois

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- After a nearly 200-year absence, Illinois is once again a home where the buffalo -- bison, that is -- roam. 

The wild bison, trucked into the state from nature preserves in Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota in October, are back in the Prairie State thanks to the efforts of a major wildlife conservation group. Southern Illinois University Carbondale is also playing a major role in the effort, and could be for some time to come. 

Researchers from SIU already are involved with the project with The Nature Conservancy on its Nachusa Grasslands, a 2,500-acre area of native and restored prairie in northern Illinois where a diverse herd of 30 bison recently were re-introduced. The animals are wandering a 500-acre portion of the area, with another 1,000 acres opening up for them in 2015, once fencing is completed. 

Clay Nielsen, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation with the Department of Forestry and the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at SIU, along with graduate student Julia Brockman, are assisting the effort with fieldwork, equipment and the expertise Nielsen has gained working with large mammal populations over the years. 

“Our goal is to study how bison use the prairie and to look at their impacts on prairie vegetation,” Nielsen said.   

Illinois once was dominated by a tall grass prairie, with bison roaming freely and a magnificent diversity of plant and animal life native to such an environment. With European settlement, however, much of the prairie turned over for agricultural use, and the bison were extirpated. Most researchers identify 1830 as the year bison officially disappeared from Illinois. 

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) started the effort more than two decades ago, acquiring thousands of acres of agricultural land that had once been prairie and returning it to its natural state. Jeff Walk, science director with TNC in Illinois, said seven female bison have been fitted with GPS collars, which will form the basis for analyses conducted by SIU researchers. 

“It’s very important to The Nature Conservancy to use sound science to guide our conservation work and evaluate the effects of bison and grazing at Nachusa Grasslands and we have had long-standing and productive relationships with SIU researchers working there,” Walk said. “When we were searching for scientists to study bison ecology, the reputation and resources of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory (CWRL), and Dr. Nielsen’s expertise with telemetry and large wildlife species made this a really attractive partnership from our perspective.  We have a good collaboration started with Southern Illinois University, and we’re excited to expand research and education opportunities at Nachusa and our other preserves.” 

Nielsen has been spearheading SIU’s effort, finding money for graduate student Brockman and coordinating some preliminary work by Sara Baer, professor of plant biology, who has been working with TNC researchers taking baseline data on plant life, as well as building structures that will keep bison off the vegetation in certain areas. The barriers, known as exclosures, will provide control samples of plant life that the researchers can later compare to areas the bison are allowed into, allowing them to measure the animals’ impact on plant life. 

“Sara Baer was instrumental in designing the study to monitor grazing effects on vegetation,” Walk said. 

After researchers and others rounded up the bison at the other TNC preserves and brought them to Illinois, Brockman helped fit them with specialized GPS collars that email the animals’ positions using global positioning systems data. 

“The old days of having to track large animals ourselves using radio signals and antennas are gone,” Nielsen said. “These are very expensive collars, and very useful in this situation.” 

Although SIU already has its foot in the door, Nielsen and others are hoping to enlarge the university’s role in the project as it plays out during the next few years. They are assembling a proposal that would fund a large, multi-disciplinary research effort by several university research faculty. 

The proposal as currently envisioned would involve Baer along with Matt Whiles, professor of zoology and CWRL interim director, John Groninger, professor of forestry, and possibly others, each tasked with a different aspect of the research. All are members of the SIU Center for Ecology, as well, which Whiles directs. 

Whiles said because of the breadth of relevant expertise on the campus, SIU is perfectly poised to take advantage of the unique research opportunity 

“We have assembled a multidisciplinary team to examine how the bison will affect the prairie at multiple scales,” Whiles said. That would include looking at the responses of individual species, populations and communities, and ultimately ecosystem function.  

James Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate school, said SIU has a strong group working on restoration ecology and wildlife conservation. 

“SIU biologists, including experts working in the colleges of Agriculture Sciences and Science plus the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, are well poised to welcome these organisms back to Illinois and ensure that they thrive.  Bison are an extension of the prairies, and our scientists are ready to help put the pieces of our natural heritage back together,” Garvey said. 

Garvey said SIU researchers are familiar with other conservation and restoration efforts occurring in the United States and other countries.  Several faculty, including himself, have worked, with funding from the National Science Foundation, in the Konza Prairie ecosystem, which is managed by Kansas State University. 

“Much of this area in Kansas is remnant prairie, with free-roaming bison and managed wildfires,” Garvey said. “What we've learned there will help guide us toward restoration of Illinois prairie ecosystems. Our hope is that a similar system, long-term restoration and research site may be maintained in Illinois, providing new insight into the similarities and differences between Kansas and Illinois prairies, their bison and other heritage organisms.” 

Brockman, in the meantime, will be heavily involved in the project. As she pursues her master’s degree in forestry during the next two years or so, Brockman will look at bison location data, overlapping it with maps showing vegetation types. The goal is to see how the bison use the prairie, and how that translates into the animals’ management of the ecosystem. 

“The goal is to have bison manage the prairie as we would have expected 200 years ago, before they were extirpated,” she said. “We’re looking at bison habitat selection, what they like and how they use it, and what effects that has. Do they like areas that have been burned recently, or the hilltop remnant prairies? How do they live?” 

Brockman helped collar the female bison -- an experience she described as “interesting,” given the large and powerful animal’s wild nature. Another aspect of her research involves that very interaction with humans. 

“We’re also looking at habituation to humans as they settle in. Do they avoid infrastructure?  How do they react when humans approach them?” 

Nielsen said that aspect feeds into how the long-term experiment of returning bison to their previous home on the prairies of Illinois might work out. 

“The Nature Conservancy is trying to manage them as a wild herd as much as possible, so we’re interested in how they react to humans, and whether that changes as time goes on. 

“These are high-profile animals, what we call one of the iconic, charismatic mega-faunal species. People may be standing at the fence watching them. Will that modify their behavior? So this situation is testing the notion of being able to develop these smaller enclosed bison populations in the Midwest and East. There are not a lot of examples available because bison are mostly a western phenomenon. So this will tell us something about how well this will work here.”