Bison Bridge Foundation aims to transform aging interstate bridge


Jonathan Mast via unsplash

Bison are the largest mammals in North America and are traditionally. considered a keystone species in the Midwest and Great Plains ecosystems. However, their near-extinction has left these ecosystems vulnerable.

Keval Wagher, Copy Editor

A new project envisions a pedestrian and wildlife bridge crossing the Mississippi River – and the infrastructure necessary for the concept is already here. 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Interstate 80 bridge was built in 1967 and is beginning to show signs of significant wear. Increasing maintenance costs associated with the necessary repairs and rehabilitation are the result of age and increased traffic flow. Moreover, the current bridge does not meet current roadway standards and has caused an increase in vehicle crashes. 

It is likely that the DOT will decide to construct an entirely new bridge to alleviate the problems caused by age and adhere to roadway standards. Building a new bridge is projected to save money in the long run as vehicle traffic continues to increase. Potential plans would sanction the demolition of the current bridge. 

The Bison Bridge Foundation seeks to change that. Currently, the construction of a new I-80 bridge is in the Phase I stage, where preliminary engineering and environmental impacts are studied. Instead of demolishing the current bridge, the Bison Bridge Foundation hopes to convert the old bridge into a wildlife and recreational crossing between Illinois and Iowa. 

The Bison Bridge is the vision of local environmental hero Chad Pegracke. Founder of Living Land and Waters, an organization that removes waste and invasive species from numerous Midwestern rivers, Pegracke announced, ”When I dreamed up this idea for repurposing the I-80 bridge, I realized I could help rewrite the river’s reputation in a new way. Repurposing infrastructure is a trend in the United States. What is deemed ‘old’ becomes ‘new,’ and in turn transforms and enhances the quality of life in these communities.”

But why bison? 

The near extinction of the once-great species led to a drastic change in the ecosystems of the Great Plains and Midwest. Before the Westward expansion of the U.S., millions of bison roamed in tremendous herds. As a keystone species, their impact on the ecosystems they encounter is massive. Their presence increases biodiversity and is essential in revitalizing native prairie grasses and animal species. 

Bison are native to Iowa, but the severe decline of their population during the 19th century and the subsequent transformation of prairie to farmland has depleted the natural environment. These majestic animals would not be contained to the immediate area, but by reintroducing bison into an adequate environment like the acreage on each side of the river, the herd would likely stay close to home and travel from one side to the other. 

The foundation strives to achieve National Park status for the bridge and the surrounding acreage. Pegracke and supporters of the bridge believe that this is the first step in restoring the prairie habit that is essential to the ecological health of the region. The Bison Bridge Foundation envisions introducing a small herd of bison and providing them with an area to thrive in. 

Junior Alexa Mueller, who resides near the I-80 bridge, stated, “The bison bridge will be a scenic and exciting addition to life along the river. Right now the only things in the immediate area are an interstate and a gas station. Having the bridge there would create a better quality of life for people in the area.”

Further, the Bison Bridge will attract a host of tourists eager to safely view the great animal up close. The tourism from the bridge will also contribute to the economic prosperity of the surrounding area. “There will definitely be a lot more traffic to the shops along the river, which will be good for the town,” said LeClaire resident Keaton Ayers. 

While the project is still just a concept, the foundation hopes to gain traction through a grassroots movement. To establish its place in DOT plans, the foundation must prove the support and feasibility of the project before Phase II commences.