For the first time in nearly 200 years, wild American bison have set down roots east of the Mississippi River.
The historic milestone is credit of the Nature Conservancy, which has relocated a herd of 30 bison to the Nachusa Grasslands of north-central Illinois.
These bison are part of an ongoing project to restore the native landscape of Illinois, which is nicknamed the Prairie State, but has lost 99 percent of its original grassland.
Nature conservancy staff and volunteers have been attempting to revive the lost grassland since the late 1980s, but only recently were they able to add the herd, which unlike many current bison, are free of domestic cattle genes. The wild herd is the first of its kind east of the Mississippi in nearly two centuries. The animals will be crucial in helping to maintain the local environment by eating grasses and promoting plant diversity.
The herd will be contained within a fenced 500-acre plot, and rounded up yearly to receive vaccinations. Many are implanted with identification chips or wear GPS collars. However, they will eventually be treated as wild animals, and signs warn anyone attempting to trespass that the temperamental bison will respond to intruders accordingly.
Bison were once one of the most plentiful species in North America, numbering in the millions before the 19th century. As settlers expanded westward, the federal government sanctioned the slaughter of entire bison herds to make room for railroads and cattle ranches and to deprive Native Americans of their main food source. By 1890, the bison had been hunted to near-extinction. Recent programs run by national parks and reserves have returned bison to a healthy population. To commemorate its storied role in American history, the bison has been proposed as the national mammal of the United States.
Scientists are eager to study the herd's long-term effect on the area, and if the experiment shows promise, the Conservancy hopes to bring in more bison next year. However, the conservation group concedes that the land has been damaged beyond complete repair. Realities of the modern world also mean the the herd will have to be constantly managed, unable to ever roam completely free.
Still, conservationists are hopeful the project will serve an important role in partially restoring a historical landscape and introducing the bison as a national symbol to a whole new generation.