FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill. (AP) — Straddling the line of Ogle and Lee counties are 3,500 acres of prairie where the bison roam and species of butterflies freely land on plants as rare as they are.

The bison aren't just grazing; they're part of an ongoing restoration at Nachusa Grasslands to get the regional prairie grasslands back to the way they were. Today, only a trace of Illinois' original prairie exists in spots throughout the state.

The bison are a tool for prairie restoration, said Elizabeth Bach, the property's ecosystem restoration scientist. "It needs some disruption to thrive."

Scientists and volunteers are continuing their mission of restoring Nachusa Grasslands by using natural elements like living animals, controlled fire and even a little bit of hard labor. This season, Nachusa stepped up its studies by hiring Bach as a full-time member to look at data, disseminate it and study the short-term and long-term effects the methods are having on one of the state's remaining pieces of prairie.

"We've been doing science since the beginning, and we're doing more and more science every year," said Bill Kleiman, project director. "It's been increasing over the last couple years and we realized that, so much is going on, we need a science coordinator."

The natural resources used such as the bison and fires will rid the land of sweet clover, red clover, birdsfoot trefoil and other invasive plants that have moved in on the original prairie's turf. Native plants the staff primarily is concerned with preserving include the eastern prairie fringed orchid, prairie bush clover and grasses, such as Scribner's panic grass.

She's only a little more than a month into her job, but Bach said it "is a really incredible place" that contains some "special treasures."

"It has some of the highest plant diversity you'll find in a restored tall-grass prairie and they've done a lot of good work there," she said. "A lot of the questions moving forward center around how to keep that plant diversity over the long term."

Before coming to Franklin Grove, Bach was the executive director for the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Nachusa Grasslands officials were inspired to create Bach's full-time position after visiting Konza Biological Station in northeastern Kansas, which has four Ph.D.s on staff.

"We were impressed with what they had," Kleiman said. "We made the decision to hire a scientist and, two years later, Elizabeth is the result of that."

Less than 4 percent of prairie property still exists across the U.S., Bach said. In Illinois, there is about 0.1 percent left.

"It's really rare," she said. "People don't think about it like that because it's in their own backyard."

Thirty bison were brought to Nachusa Grasslands in 2014 from Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri to munch on the grass and provide the land with a natural disruption. Now, there are about 125 bison. Shortly after they were brought to the region, the first bison in about 200 years was born on this side of the Mississippi River.

One way Nachusa Grasslands is studying the effects of the bison is by closing off a hilltop with an electric fence, to compare the land inside with the grazed land on the outside.

But while they are part of the science aspect of the grounds, the bison are still a draw for people, Kleiman said.

"There's a lot of interest the bison has created that brings more and more people," Kleiman said. "There's a lot more energy the bison brought and they're (working in conjunction) with all the science."

Don't expect to get too close to the bison though. They can only be viewed in designated areas a distance away. They are left alone by the staff to do as bison do. The annual Autumn on the Prairie event provides a riding tour throughout the area, and a chance to get closer than usual to the bison.

This year, it takes place Sept. 15.

"They're wild animals," Bach said, "and we treat them as such."

This season, Nachusa Grasslands officially opened its visitor center, which includes a shaded area filled with information about the land surrounding it. It also can provide a place to see the roaming bison.

Eric Blackburn of Dixon stopped by with his son Rex to see the bison. He said he hopes the restoration efforts work out.

"I hear a lot of people talk about it," Blackburn said. "It's pretty important to keep it going. It's nice to see."

Every spring and sometimes fall, the grasslands staff do controlled burns to get rid of invasive plants. The last ones took place in March and April, and they mirror lightning strikes and the fires of Native Americans that occurred there centuries ago.

?(The unwanted plants) don't grow back as robustly," Bach said. "It's a great way to shift the edge to the native plants."

Sometimes, unwanted plants are also removed with a little elbow grease; Bach pulled a bunch of them out of the ground while giving a tour of the grounds one especially hot June day.

"It's a battle," she said. "I don't know if it will ever be completely eradicated."

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Source: Rockford Register Star, https://bit.ly/2KWQzh0

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Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com