Bison Grazing for Grassland Bird Habitat
In 2021, the Conservation District entered into a 15-year lease agreement on 180 acres of pastureland at Pleasant Valley Conservation Area in Woodstock to Ruhter Bison LLC to raise young bison (age 1-3 year-old animals). Liberty Prairie Foundation was instrumental in finding and connecting the two entities, which developed into a successful match for the District to begin a bison grassland grazing program. The herd will be kept at a low stocking rate and rotated through the pasture to manage the habitat. Ruhter Bison is dedicated to wildlife conservation and protecting natural resources.
The goal of the bison grazing partnership is to utilize bison as another tool to manage prairie and grassland habitat for the benefit of breeding birds and other wildlife. The District is committed to advancing its conservation goals through data-driven, conservation-oriented farm management using practices that protect soil and water resources, conserve wildlife habitat, and regenerate ecological function. We continue to seek innovative ways to accomplish these goals through new partnerships.
Bison are a native species that historically played a keystone role in the ecology of prairies and grasslands, and they are an excellent management tool for prairie ecosystems. They help keep the balance of habitat structure and species composition of the prairie. Their grazing and wallowing behavior creates a mosaic of microhabitats for grassland birds, pollinators, and other wildlife. Bison are also more selective in their grazing habits, which promotes a more diverse plant community. It is important to the prairie habitat to have grazers part of the land management. The bison are doing the work of managing the prairie, and in a far more natural and beneficial way for wildlife.
For the health and safety of the animals, this section of Pleasant Valley is closed to the public. Future plans include offering public education programs and tours a few times each year.
“It is so important to prairie habitat to have grazers as another restoration tool in land management. Grazers like elk, deer or bison are essential to enhancing the diversity of a grassland habitat – they help keep the balance of habitat structure and species composition of the prairie. These are inspiring animals, similar to viewing bald eagles, where the sight bison grazing on open prairie is above and beyond what we are used to. It is exciting for this to finally happen," said (now retired) Natural Resource Manager Bard Woodson.
“When used in conjunction with prescribed burns, to manage grassland habitat, bison are a native species that historically played a keystone role in the ecology of prairies and grasslands. Their grazing and wallowing behavior creates a mosaic of microhabitats for birds, pollinators, small mammals, and other wildlife,” stated Brenna Ness Agricultural Ecologist.
Grassland bison grazing is something McHenry County Conservation District has looked at establishing for many years, but there were few opportunities where the conditions were just right. The opportunity presented itself when the previous tenant, who utilized the land as a combination of agriculture and cattle, no longer wished to re-new their farm lease. “This time we had the right location, the right opportunity, the right contacts and it finally all came together. Ruhter Bison was a great fit because the Ruhters are dedicated to wildlife conservation and protecting natural resources,” said Woodson. “They are investing money in the property – new fences, watering system and building improvements – but the value to the District goes far beyond monetary, the real cost savings to the District is in terms of saving staff resources on ongoing habitat management.”
Phase one of the project placed the six bison on 30 acres, but plans call for potentially increasing the herd to thirty young animals at its peak on 180 acres in the coming years. Future programs involve a partnership with Ruhter for viewings, tours and educational opportunities for the public to learn about the bison.
The Benefits of Bison Grazing
Bison are a keystone species of the prairie ecosystem and grazers play an important role in prairie restoration. Bison grazing is a natural management tool for enhancing the biological diversity of our local prairie, while benefitting the habitat of grassland breeding bird species and other wildlife.
Grazing creates a vegetation structure that is attractive to many grassland birds. At one time, grassland bird species evolved alongside these large grazers. Declining grassland bird species such as grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, upland sandpipers, and savannah sparrows prefer the shorter, patchier structures of grazed pastures vs. the taller, more uniform structure of prairie restorations. District breeding bird data has shown higher densities of some of these species in cattle grazed pastures than in adjoining prairie restorations.
The benefits of grazing bison are numerous. Bison are primarily prefer grasses, tending to leave forbs ungrazed. The removal of the grass canopy will result in warmer soil temperatures and increased soil moisture, which increases light availability to ungrazed forbs and can stimulate earlier growth of forbs in the spring. Bison grazing also creates a vegetation structure that is attractive to many grassland birds. Grassland birds evolved alongside these large grazers. Declining species such as grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, upland sandpipers, and savannah sparrows prefer the shorter, patchier structures of grazed pastures versus the taller, more uniform structure of restored prairies.
Bison grazing also alters nutrient cycling processes and nutrient availability. Insects and bacteria decompose their feces, helping to recycle nutrients back into the soil. Bison also help disperse seeds that get caught in their thick fur and are distributed throughout the prairie. Their hooves plant seeds in the soil while leaving divots that hold moisture.