In late fall, the elk and bison at Wildlife Prairie Park are shepherded from summer to winter pastures, receiving vaccinations and undergoing tests crucial to keeping their populations healthy.
You won’t find them running wild in Illinois, but the American bison—the shaggy, magnificent 2,000-pound emblem of the Great Plains—is thriving at Wildlife Prairie Park in Hanna City. The park’s herd, some 30 strong, happily roams its native turf amongst the park’s 400+ acres, offering a glimpse of central Illinois’ past: prairie and beast united, as it was before the population was decimated by overhunting and habitat loss in the early 1800s.
Sharing the pastures with these wooly behemoths are 20 other unlikely suspects: a gang of North American elk, whose historic range also included Illinois at one time. While there are no confirmed wild elk herds in the Prairie State, the Illinois Natural History Survey reports successful reintroductions in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. And despite the fences here in Hanna City, watching elk and bison roam together on their ancestral stomping grounds makes for an amazing display—one made possible by the efforts of a dedicated staff that’s committed to their health.
Quality of Habitat
Restoring herd populations and maintaining the health of bison and elk is no easy task. “As with all of our animals, their general health is vitally important,” says Doug Dillow, the park’s executive director. “With herds like this, there are various diseases and other things out there… We have to watch and treat for all that.” And that’s just the start.
In fact, wildlife population dynamics is a colossal field all its own, focused on the long-winded science of distribution and density patterns of individual animals within a habitat. For any tract of land—wild or conserved—knowing how vegetation and geography affect a species is critical to determining a healthy herd size; the spatial arrangement and quality of habitat ultimately determine carrying capacity, or how many individuals of a species a property can healthfully support. Of course, aging, birth and death rates also come into play.
“We can only have so many animals based on the size of our facilities,” Dillow explains. “Evaluating which animals to keep, and which are at a point where we need to make changes to our breeding [is essential], so we can maintain genetic viability and health… [and] so we don’t allow other bad conditions to develop.” Each fall, in an effort to monitor the animals’ health and well-being by administering vaccinations and essential bloodwork, Wildlife Prairie Park conducts a bison and elk “round-up,” with the assistance of staff and students from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
A Beneficial Partnership
Two decades ago, Bill Rutherford Sr., the park’s revered founder, contacted the University of Illinois to inquire about setting up a relationship with its College of Veterinary Medicine—one that would be mutually beneficial to both the park and the school. It was Dr. Blake Shipley, clinical associate professor and interim assistant director of the university’s Agricultural Animal Care and Use Program, who really sealed the deal, Dillow explains. “Largely, his personal interest in elk and bison fueled his continuing to come back and do this over the years.”
Shipley laughs, trying to recall how long he’s assisted the park in the annual round-up. “Fifteen… maybe 20 years?” he ventures. “I’m not sure, but it goes back quite a long time.” Fueled by his doctoral studies in veterinary medicine at Iowa State University, Shipley’s particular passion is cervids—members of the deer family—as well as small ruminants—cattle, sheep, antelope and their relatives.
“I have been working on all creatures, great and small, for over 30 years,” he says. “I actually raise deer and elk myself,” referring to the 80 animals he owns on a tract of land about ten miles from the Urbana-Champaign campus. Shipley rears them for a variety of purposes: meat, urine production (for use in hunting lures) and as breeding stock for hunting ranges. Though it may sound quirky, he’s hardly the only one so passionate about cervids.
“There are more deer and elk farmers than most people realize,” he explains. At the College of Veterinary Medicine, Shipley imparts his passion to students in a wide variety of veterinary disciplines, but with an emphasis on the clinical approach, it can be difficult to find quality, hands-on learning experiences for them. The annual field trip to Wildlife Prairie Park provides “a lot of exposure they otherwise wouldn’t get,” he notes. Each year, he invites all of his seniors on the trip, along with any other students or faculty interested in joining them.
“I usually have more students wanting to go than I have room for, so a lot of [them] will drive on their own or carpool—anything so we can get them there,” he says. “I’ve also had students who have graduated… but still come back each year to help with the round-up.”
“It’s been a good tool for the students to learn and get hands-on experience with the exotic species… and, I hope, it’s been good for the park, too,” says Shipley.
Through the Chutes
During the round-up, these huge creatures are herded from their newly-opened winter pasture into a system of chutes, where they are coaxed into corrals to receive their check-ups: bloodwork, vaccinations and a deworming treatment. The expert assistance provided by Shipley and his team are essential to the process, which can be somewhat taxing on the animals. “It’s all hands on deck,” Dillow says. “It’s vitally important and necessary, but it’s also a little stressful.
“They don’t really like to be locked in, and they don’t like to run through the chutes. Sometimes the process goes very smoothly, and other times, it doesn’t,” he admits. “They’re not used to being handled and… moved through these smaller enclosures. They’re big and powerful, so there are safety concerns and precautions that have to be taken. It requires a lot of people and patience and care.”
But all the effort is well worth the trouble, he says. During the exam process several years ago, Shipley discovered that some of the animals’ nutritional requirements were not being met. “Our soils and pastures were not providing the nutrients that were necessary, so some of our animals had mineral deficiencies,” Dillow explains. To help replace some of these lost nutrients, park staff quickly added supplemental treatments to their diet.
“It’s [these] kinds of benefits that come through [the round-up],” says Dillow, grateful for the process and for Shipley’s expertise. “And when he comes… it presents a unique opportunity for [those students].” Now standing calm and collected amidst their winter pasture, the bison and elk look picturesque and majestic in their element. One bison rolls its body back and forth in the dirt, creating a small depression in the earth, as if thrilled to be on this land, just like the 20 million ancestors that once roamed the country free. Perhaps someday, they will again be wild in Illinois, but for now, Wildlife Prairie Park’s effort to prioritize the health of the herd provides the next-best alternative. a&s
For more information and a schedule of upcoming winter events at the park, visit wildlifeprairiepark.org.