WILMINGTON – The number of visitors to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie has increased significantly following the reintroduction of American bison in late October.
Midewin staff recorded between 400 and 500 visitors during pleasant weather days at the Iron Bridge Trailhead, designated as the public access point closest to the bison's pasture areas.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Supervisor Wade Spang said that's exceptionally higher than in previous years. About 17,000 people visited the nationally operated grassland prairie in 2013, the last time Midewin conducted an in-depth visitor survey, according to a Midewin news release. Surveys are conducted every five years with the next one due in 2018.
The bison appear to have a growing fan base.
"There are a lot of folks who enjoy coming out and seeing the bison. Some are coming back again and again," Spang said. "And [the bison] have acclimated quite well since they arrived. They seem to be enjoying their location."
Visitors are encouraged to call or stop by the Welcome Center to learn more about opportunities to see the bison roaming on any given day. Because of the vast size of the pasture system and the rolling hills, spotting bison may be difficult depending on the herd's location and weather.
"With a little patience, and maybe some binoculars, you can see them," Spang said.
Staff has noticed some of the bison cows are beginning to expand in their rib cage, indicating they will be baby calves that arrive in the spring, according to the news release. Spang said it's an exciting time for Midewin.
A public event is being planned for May, Spang said, although he couldn't offer additional details.
Rich Short, landscape architect at Midewin, said the bison herd has the potential to raise Midewin's profile "tremendously" and attract more people to the national tallgrass prairie.
"I think we have to wait and see what the effect will be, but I think the potential is here for it to be a big draw for the people to Midewin," Short said.
To see bison roam at Midewin has been a long-sought dream of the U.S. Forest Service site since it was established in 1996. The bison reintroduction is part of an experimental long-term project to see how the herd’s grazing habits can benefit the habitat.