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Home on the range - again

Belwin brought in heavy, four-legged equipment to enhance its prairie restoration project when the nature preserve released a herd of 25 bison onto the non-profit's land in Afton June 28.

The bison will roam 220 acres of native prairie on Belwin's northern edge through early October. They are located in a 15-acre section of the land near the intersection of Stagecoach Trail South and Division Street. The additional 205 acres will be opened for the animals.

"We aren't having bison brought out here as kind of an ornament of the prairie," said Steve Hobbs, director of Belwin for the past year. "They are here to help us bring the prairie back."

The Belwin organization owns 1,300 acres of land that includes prairie, wetlands, forests and more. Of that, 500 acres are considered native prairie, land that is closely monitored and cared for as staff at Belwin try to bring it back to its original state.

In doing so, techniques such as mowing and controlled burns have been used as tools to re-create the original environment. This is the first time Belwin will try bison, the giant animals whose history is embedded in the culture of the Midwest.

Rather than purchasing the animals, Belwin is pasturing a collection of one-year-old calves from North Star Bison, a bison farm in Rice Creek, Wis. The arrangement is a collaborative project between the bison farm and Belwin, with benefits flowing both ways.

From North Star's perspective, their young bison will have plenty of ground to graze over, dieting on prairie grasses and flowers native to the area.

"The bison were intended to be fully grass-fed animals," said Mary Graese, owner of North Star Bison.

"This is a very unique arrangement," Graese said. "There have been other situations where people have pastured animals for us. As far as commitment to restoring grasslands, this is unique."

At Belwin, the bison compliment the grasslands. Their sharp-edged hooves rough up the soil, readying it to accept moisture more efficiently, according to Hobbs.

Bison graze at a steady pace, moving together as they eat the grasses along their path. They leave several inches of the plant above the ground. The short leftover layer of grass helps prevent erosion while acting as coverage in severe drought situations.

There are high hopes that the program will work, but it is still considered an experiment. After next spring's thaw, an evaluation of the grassland will take place to determine if the technique was a success.

Hobbs is optimistic -- and curious to watch -- as the bison acclimate to their new summertime home.

"We'll have to see," Hobbs said. "This is the first time bison have been here in at least 150 years. We'll have to see if there are parts of the pasture where the bison stay."'

Future plans at Belwin include the construction of an observation tower that overlooks the prairie that contains the bison.

Fundraising for the project, which will cost an estimated $30,000, is underway. Hobbs said work on the tower at the north side of Belwin will start as soon as enough money is raised.

Along with helping to restore the prairie grasses, the addition of a bison herd is on par with other goals behind Belwin.

"What Belwin strives to do is to get people back in touch with nature, and provide a place to do that," said Hobbs. "We think having bison in this area will help tell a great story. Not only about our history, but about the ecological history of this whole area."

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