Bison and the Prairie Puzzle

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Aldo Leopold.

I enjoy puzzles. I like the way the full image emerges as I slot each shape into its correct niche. While slowing down and paying attention to the puzzle pieces, I sometimes mentally work through some other knotty problem or issue.


However, one of the most frustrating moments in finishing a 1,000 -piece puzzle is realizing you lost a piece along the way. Or several pieces. Sure, you got close. But that one elusive piece keeps the image from what it should be. It nags at you.

I think of this as I hike Nachusa Grasslands, a 3,500-plus acre site managed by The Nature Conservancy in Illinois. Nachusa Grasslands is tucked into a patchwork quilt of farms about 90 minutes west of downtown Chicago. Over its 20-plus year history, it has assembled more than 700 native species through restoring habitat.


You can see everything at Nachusa from threatened eastern prairie fringed orchids to the uncommon ornate box turtles. Close your eyes, and listen to the cheerful warble of dickcissels (shown above). In summer, the prairie blooms wash over the landscape in a changing kaleidoscope of purple, gold, pink and white. The grasses – big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, little bluestem — blend together in the fall and early winter in sweeps of breathtaking color.


700 species! That’s enough to complete any prairie, right?

And yet.

A piece of the puzzle was missing here. A big piece.

IMG_0385 2

Bison bison. That’s the scientific name. We know them as American buffalo, which disappeared from Illinois about 200 years ago. Now, since late 2014, through the efforts of restorationists and people who weren’t afraid to dream big, they are at Nachusa Grasslands.  With the bison puzzle piece in place, other lost “puzzle pieces”  — species —may be attracted and restored. A little intelligent tinkering.

When I began hiking at Nachusa several years ago and heard about the plan to restore bison, I wondered. Would the preserve suddenly seem like a zoo? Or one of those exotic animal farms you drive by in rural areas with zebras and llamas? A curiosity?

When the bison lumbered out into the tallgrass to graze, my fears were assuaged. They looked like they belonged there.


As they do.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Author’s puzzle; dickcissel at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; NG in December; bison at NG; bison at NG)

5 responses to “Bison and the Prairie Puzzle

  1. Love your puzzle analogy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice little piece on the missing piece. I’m comin out to see the bison this spring.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So true, now they just need another keystone species that was also extripated, the wolf, if the puzzle were to be really complete.


  4. A great metaphor and beautiful descriptions.


  5. Actually, now that I think of it, your post is in the same vein as my recent musings on a controlled prairie fire I volunteered for. Thanks to your thoughts I added ‘bison’ as one of the tags. Funny that I’d forgotten to do that, since some of my thoughts centered around them. Here’s the link:


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