American Bison are making a comeback in Illinois, and this time we don't mean on the menu at the newest burger joint.
The majestic animals are coming home to Illinois where they used to roam freely some 200 years ago. Their new home is the Nachusa Grasslands about 100 miles west of Chicago, where bison are roaming the countryside.
At any given time on Lowden road in rural Lee county, you will see cars pulled off to the side of the road and people patiently waiting to get a glimpse of the newest roadside attraction: American Bison - their heads down grazing on the Illinois countryside and their tails flicking the flies away.
“It's awesome that they've been reintroduced back into this area,” said Jeanne Mlady, a local who stops by often.
Last October, the Nachusa Grasslands welcomed 30 bison, and restoration ecologist Cody Considine said that this spring 14 calves were born.
He said the animals haven't lived on an Illinois prairie for close to 200 years.
“The accounts that we've read, 1836, right around that area was the last wild bison was killed not too far from here,” said Considine.
Bison were on the brink of extinction being slaughtered by American settlers. In the early 20th century, less than 100 free-roaming bison remained in the world.
"They are not being raised commercially for meat production or the nostalgia. It's the American iconic animal, they are here because they have a job to do," said Considine.
That job is to eat, pick away at the prairie and maintain the natural ecosystem.
Through decades of hard work restoring the prairie, what used to be row crops like soybeans and corn, has now gone back in time 200 years to what most of Illinois used to look like.
Volunteer steward Jay Stacy said that 22 million acres of prairie used to cover Illinois, and that's dwindled to now less than one tenth of one percent of that because of an increase in farmland.
Stacy left Chicago in the mid-80's to help in the restoration.
“We are like a little battalion of volunteer citizen scientists," said Stacy.
Bernie Bucholz, another volunteer steward, is spending his retirement on the prairie. He's been working the piece of property for years and the corn field in the distance is next, and the only thing standing in their way is time.
The Oak Park resident now spends 700 hours every year pulling weeds after spending a career in corporate investment.
While the bison may be the rock stars and attracting all the attention, it appears these fine stewards may deserve the real round of applause, spending decades doing the work to get the bison here for their homecoming and our viewing pleasure.
"Just come out and take a nice leisurely walk and if it doesn't calm you, I don't think anything will. This is my therapy, this is my church, this is all the things that bring peace and joy to my life,” said Bucholz.
The volunteer stewards are trying to make sure there's always money to maintain the work they've done over the past three decades.
They are raising money, 3 million dollars in fact to help preserve the prairie.
The prairie is also opening for hiking, tours and of course pulling weeds.