Where the bison will roam

Tribune Photojournalist

Easily one of the best parts of being a newspaper photographer is all the diverse places the job takes you. I really feel like life is all about experiences and I love that with each assignment for me comes a new one. Back in April I had the chance to work on a really great story about the Nachua Grasslands project in Franklin Grove, Ill.

For nearly 30 years volunteers have been working to restore a 3,100 acre area owned by The Nature Conservancy to it’s native prairie from the agricultural land it was used as for so long. To date, about 2,500 acres have been replanted as prairie. To complete the process and maintain a healthy ecosystem, project directors are soon going to be introducing a herd of bison to the land as a sort of living lawnmower.

The Nachua Grasslands sit in a rural area that couldn’t be in starker contrast to the streets and buildings of Chicago. While visiting, project director Bill Kleiman gave reporter Jennifer Delgado and I a tour around the property from a pickup truck, stopping every so often to check on and visit with several groups of volunteers, some of which have been with the project since its inception. In the afternoon I photographed workers setting a controlled burn over a field that would, come this October, be pasture for 30-50 bison initially. The fire helps spur new growth.

The only trouble here is that the bison weren’t. Back at the office the photos were nice, but without seeing any actual animals the package felt flat. So a few days and about 430 miles later I was at Dunn Ranch, another property of The Nature Conservancy near Bethany, Mo. that’s already home to a herd. There, with the aid of a lens longer than my arm, I photographed the bison as they went about their day and desperately hoped for nice light.

Since the initial story ran in newspaper on April 22nd, I’ve been back to visit the Nachua Grasslands photographing the landscape as it’s changed while workers build the necessary fences to keep bison in and people out. In October I’ll be traveling with Kleiman as he and volunteers drive west to a round-up after which they’ll bring back the herd. Still working to see if I can expense a pair of cowboy boots.

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