Here’s a story that’s not only intriguing from an environmental standpoint, but equally valuable as a teachable moment for the vegetarian community afflicted with tunnel vision about humanity’s relationship with the herbivores that inhabit the planet’s rangelands and prairies.

Wild bison have been reintroduced to an area where they haven’t lived for more than a century: Illinois. Anyone who’s made the long drive on I-55 from Chicago to St. Louis would be forgiven for thinking that the native flora in that state is corn fields. Truth is that the state was once covered with grassland. Where combines now comb the landscape, once was populated by herds of bison.

And now, after being absent for more than a century, a recently introduced herd established on the 500-acre Nachusa Grasslands prairie restoration project about 100 miles west of Chicago is growing and thriving.

The Nature Conservancy began acquiring land in the area in 1986 with the goal of creating a large prairie in a state that has lost nearly all of its native landscape. The group organized a team of volunteers who have conducted hundreds restorations on the site, including the planting of thousands of pounds of seeds to restore native prairie species.

Since the first bison were trucked in last October from the Broken Kettle Grasslands near Sioux City, Iowa, some 14 calves have been born, according to the Chicago Tribune. The project managers said the overall goal is fostering a symbiotic relationship between the prairie ecosystem and the animals necessary to sustain it.

 “The [calves] are doing well,” Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa project director, told the newspaper, noting that the herd now numbers 44 head.

“They look just like they belong, which they do,” he said.

The herd’s expansion an obvious sign that the animals are historically suited to the area, but other data support the project’s mission of letting the bison herd’s roaming, grazing and fertilizing maintain the prairie. Without that activity, it’s almost impossible to maintain the unique biodiversity of the prairie grasslands.

It's that relationship which veggies who believe that animal husbandry is inappropriate need to understand.

Balancing the habitat

Researchers have found that smaller mammals, such as mice and voles, are building nests of bison hair, according to Cody Considine, restoration ecologist on the project, and that swallows can be seen  hovering over the herd, feeding on insects attracted to the bison.

These developments confirm that the entire ecosystem is healthier, with growing animal and insect populations, which will eventually attract a wider array of species to the area.

Bison were virtually wiped out east of the Mississippi as far back as the 1830s, due to intensive hunting. Since then, various small herds have been brought back to farms and ranches in the Midwest over the last several decades, but the Nachusa herd has several traits that distinguish them from bison already being raised in Illinois.

The Nachusa bison have not been interbred with cattle, according to the conservancy. They are direct descendants of the original North American bison population that was saved from extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. The Illinois herd remains “wild,” with human interaction only once a year for a quick veterinary checkup. The animals are becoming a tourist attraction, with visitors from across the country and even overseas driving by the range to catch a glimpse of the magnificent animals.

But what I appreciate the most about this story is that bison are “untouchable.” By that I mean they cannot be demonized by anti-industry zealots, or by their well-intentioned but misguided followers. Here are three reasons why:

One: They are indigenous, iconic species that has dominated vast swaths of North America for many, many millennia, long before the rise of Native American tribes and certainly eons before Europeans showed up. That gives them a status that cannot be impugned.

Two. They are the noblest of stewards of prairie habitats. It takes only a few minutes of searching online to find volumes of information about the vital role that migrating herds of bison played in fertilizing and maintaining the rangelands where they once roamed. Horses — the other revered herbivore that animal lovers consider people, too? They’re the invaders. They’re the interlopers.

Three. This is the best part: Bison are the original grassfed food animal. They have served as the primary food source for an entire civilization that thrived for centuries, and I’ve yet to hear a single activist condemn Native Americans for hunting and killing them by the tens of thousands. Apparently, if you use bone-tipped spears and wooden arrows to slowly and painfully kill your prey, that’s just fine. But use a rifle that dispatches them instantly? That’s slaughter!

The attitude that virtually every veggie activist harbors about cattle versus bison are as hypocritical and self-deluding as it gets.

Buffalo good. Bovines bad.

That kind of thinking is as odorous as the fertilizer that bison generously deposit on the land where they live.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.