The staff at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is moving forward with plans to reintroduce bison in the prairie areas east of Illinois Route 53 north of Wilmington — possibly as early as late fall this year.

A 30-day public review and comment period on a draft environmental assessment for the plan started Monday. Information is posted online at www.fs.usda.gov/projects/midewin/landmanagement/projects. Hard copies of the document can be requested from Renee Thakali at 815-423-2114 or email rthakali@fs.fed.us.

Native bison were once common in the area, but they were eliminated nearly 200 years ago, according to historic accounts. The idea of bringing them back to this former Joliet arsenal site has been part of the vision since Midewin's inception in the 1990s.

"Nothing will draw visitors from Chicago and elsewhere to Midewin like the chance to see a herd of bison grazing in their native habitat," an earlier announcement stated.

However, they are not intended to be just objects of curiosity and nostalgia.

"Scientific literature frequently refers to bison as a keystone species in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem," Midewin Prairie Supervisor Wade Spang has written. "The Midewin Prairie Plan provides guidance and direction to use bison on an experimental basis to meet habitat and restoration objectives."

The plan is to have the herd of up to 108 animals established on 1,200 acres of non-native grasslands along the east side of Illinois Route 53, north of the Midewin Headquarters, two miles north of Wilmington. Native tallgrass and wetland plants will be introduced and the effect of bison on the reestablishment of tallgrass prairie and grassland bird habitat will be monitored.

Initially a herd of no more than 20 could be on site as early as late fall, if all goes well with comments on the environmental assessment and building of fences and other needs for the animals, said Thakali, Midewin restoration project leader. "We have partners who are raring to go to help us," she said. "We have to get the planning done and the facilities built."

The site, nearly two square miles, will be visible from Midewin's Iron Bridge Trailhead and a system of multi-use trails is to be developed surrounding the site, so visitors can observe the bison safely. Elevated observation areas are planned.

A prairie learning center also is planned between the bison tract and the headquarters.

A decision on going forward with the plan is expected in June and implementation possibly in August.