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Bison the buzz at Nachusa Grasslands' Autumn on the Prairie

The focus may have been on fall at the Nachusa Grasslands' Autumn on the Prairie last Saturday, but there was also a lot of buzz about the bison.

"With the bison coming it's exciting," said Jean Guarino, Oak Park, as she and her husband Victor, examined prairie plants on one of the preserve's trails.

"We've volunteered before and will again to collect seeds. We helped pull nails out of the timbers when the old barn was purchased," said Victor. "The bison coming is very exciting."

The Guarinos were two of 660 visitors who were greeted by two large wooden bison billboards that explained why the bison, commonly known as buffalo, are being added to the 3,100 acre prairie that is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy.

Dependent on fundraising, the 60-80 herd is scheduled to arrive in the Fall of 2014.

Why bison?

"Bison grazing will sustain our past and current efforts. Every year staff and volunteers spend countless hours in the field collecting thousands of pounds of seed from more than 225 species of forbs, grasses, and sedges in an effort to convert agricultural lands back to tallgrass prairie. Bison grazing at Nachusa will protect this investment of financial resources and hard work by assuring that the vast array of native forbs will not be displaced by dominant grass species in future decades," reads a passage in Prairie Smoke, Nachusa Grasslands' stewardship report for 2012.

One of the displays on Saturday also helped explain: "Bison are the keystone species of tallgrass prairies. They strictly eat grass, which gives forbs (flowers) a competitive advantage over the dominant grasses. Without grazing, the grass slowly pushes out some forbs."

"We'll have more specific details coming soon about the bison," said Cody Considine, restoration ecologist. "It was such a beautiful day to be on the prairie Saturday. The weather was good, we had good planning, and the crowd was good."

That crowd could take in everything else the prairie has to offer right now, including taking a walking or auto tour to identify prairie remnants or joining a hunt to find ornate box turtles, a species currently under study at the Grasslands.

Researcher Kim Schmidt led a large tour group of 20-some people away from the display tents to find one of the ornate box turtles currently being studied at the preserve.

Fanning out on one of the hills, excited kids first found a rabbit skull and a snake skin before radio telemetry found Sheldon a 20-something male turtle who was then shown to interested adults and children.

"Sheldon is such a ham," said Schmidt. "He has had a lot of photos taken of him. I think we interrupted his can still see the bug in his mouth."

Grace Wadsworth, age 11, Dixon, lightly ran her finger down Sheldon's shell. "I like turtles," she said.

Schmidt let Wadsworth release Sheldon back to the grassland. Once with his four legs securely back on the ground, Sheldon made a quick exit into the prairie grasses. "Look how well camouflaged he is. I can barely see him now," Wadsworth said to her dad.

Back at the display tents, attendees could also try throwing an atlatl spear, chase after buttlerfies, watch artists paint the prairie or visit educational displays showing animals and insects that live on the prairie.

Dusti Batsch, age 13, Dixon, remained calm as The Professor, a 25-year-old fox snake, made her way up Batsch's sleeve before exiting at the bottom of her sweatshirt.

"That's a good one. I've never had that happen," said Sally Baumgardner, Nachusa volunteer and The Professor's "keeper".

"It's cool," said Batsch. "I remember seeing The Professor when I was little and I came here."

Diane Fliehler, Dixon, and Sandy Sarno, Oregon, were chatting while looking at beaded jewelry.

"It's the first year I've been here," said Fliehler. "I love all this. I'll be coming back."

Sarno first came to the event 10 years ago with her grandsons. "We lived in Wheaton and I brought my two grandsons," she said. "They loved it. I think everything is very informative. Where else do you find nature like this? It's wonderful."

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