National Forest Foundation

Looking back at 2015 – Bison make their way to Midewin

National Forest Foundation, Wildlife, Treasured Landscapes


As 2016 starts afresh and we look forward to the New Year, it’s also fun to reminisce about memories from the last twelve months.

Among the milestones, one is especially memorable. 2015 was the year that the NFF, U.S. Forest Service, and many partners worked together to bring a small herd of bison to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie outside of Chicago, Illinois.

Many staff at the NFF played a role in the tremendous effort, and as part of the complex process, I was fortunate to see the bison cows shortly before they made the trip from Gann Valley South Dakota to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Just over 10 hours from Midewin, Gann Valley is located in aptly named Buffalo County. Along with expansive views, deep blue skies, and breezy air, the rumble of tractors and musty odor of agriculture penetrates the senses. The area has a long history of bison ranching and several working ranches.

The bison headed for Midewin were born and raised at the ranch of Jim and Cindy Lutter. As we prepared to move the bison to Illinois, Jim and Cindy generously opened their hearts and home to the Forest Service and NFF staff involved in the process. We couldn’t have asked for friendlier hosts. A similar sentiment was present in the local community – “Eat with us!” “You can stay in our home!”

Meeting the bison

Lori Swiderski, U.S. Forest Service and Duane Lammers meet the bison in South Dakota.

With careful guidance from Jim Lutter and Duane Lammers, a bison consultant who helped choose the herd and train Forest Service employees to work with the animals, we learned that bison are curious, yet also timid. They may run away from you at the first hint of movement (and, by the way, they can run 30-35 mph!). But they may also carefully approach to see what you’re up to. Bison are also incredibly agile, athletic animals. Finally, they are intelligent. More than once, I heard the phrase “you’d never see a cow do that.”

After several days of vaccinations, herding, feeding, and other necessary tasks, the crew loaded bison on a large truck. From Gann Valley, they headed across the Midwest to their new home. The trip was long and arduous for the animals, but the scene awaiting them – a 1200-acre pasture, new, state-of-the-art corrals, and a large celebration – was worth the trek.

All of us have an origin story, and a place where we come from. For the bison now roaming Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, I feel privileged to know their origin, and for the brief opportunity to glimpse their first home in South Dakota.

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