Kane County forest preserve may once again become home to bison

It's been 200 hundred years since bison roamed the prairies of Kane County, but a new plan to reintroduce them into a local forest preserve may turn back the clock.

Kane County Forest Preserve commissioners approved a plan this week to bring a handful of bison to the Burlington Prairie Forest Preserve. The plan centers on one of the main ecological goals of restoring tallgrass prairie to the county's preserves. Before the surrounding area developed, fire and the grazing habits of wild animals, such as bison, provided natural management of the grasslands. Preserve officials reintroduced controlled burns to the preserves many years ago.

Executive director Ben Haberthur told commissioners now is the time to reintroduce bison to restore the grazing aspect of grassland management. Up to 90% of the diet for bison is grasses.

“The grasses evolved with grazing,” Haberthur said. “So it actually promotes the soil microbiome to grow more. Bison are native to Illinois, and they are definitely native to this county. They will bring a big component back to the ecosystem, namely fertilizer.”

District officials experimented with the benefits of animal grazing in the preserves with cattle in the Aurora West Forest Preserve. That experiment resulted in the flourishing of the restored grasslands in the preserve. Officials see bison as the next step in returning the grasslands to their most natural state and care.

The Burlington Prairie Forest Preserve is in the Pleasant Valley Conservation Alley north of Huntley and in the northwest portion of the county. The plan calls for two paddocks of 30 acres each with an additional 89 acres seeded for pasture. For the safety of the animals and the public, the areas containing the bison would be fenced, which accounts for the bulk of the initial cost of the project.

Staff estimates it will cost about $90,000 for fencing, which will be at least six feet tall and possibly as tall as eight feet. It will include hot wires. The fencing will be minimalistic rather than “'Jurassic Park' fencing,” Haberthur said.

“Obviously, safety is going to be a concern with an animal this size,” he said. “Neighbors are going to want to know about how we're keeping all herds safe.”

The current plan does not include any male bison, as they tend to get aggressive and fight each other once they turn 3 years old.

There will be an additional cost of about $30,000 to provide electricity and water to the site. Preserve officials will seek a $100,000 grant from Kane County, which would come from the county's cut of riverboat gambling profits. Forest preserve commissioners are also county board members, virtually assuring the funding will be approved.

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