Roaming Over the River

A decommissioned highway bridge spanning the Mississippi could become the world’s longest human-made wildlife passage.

A rendering of the proposed Bison Bridge, spanning half a mile across the Mississippi River.

Writer: Brianne Sanchez
Images: Streamline Architects

Imagine 10 years from now . . .

Families across the country are mapping their summer road trips to the national parks. They turn on their electric vehicle’s GPS and plug in the Quad Cities, eager to see a new park that spans the Mississippi River.

The one-of-a-kind Bison Bridge offers travelers a rare opportunity to stretch their legs and see North America’s largest land mammals up close. Behind a fence, tatanka graze in a former highway lane as cyclists pedal past. Prairie grasses sway in the breeze. Pedestrians pop into an interpretive center to learn about the waterway below.

A rendering by Streamline Architects.

Turning this dream into a reality is a cause Chad Pregracke and the Bison Bridge Foundation have championed for the last few years. They want to save a decommissioned Interstate 80 bridge between Iowa and Illinois by repurposing it into a regional landmark that opens up both economic and ecological opportunities along both banks of the mighty Mississippi.

“Really, the Bison Bridge isn’t about bison, and it’s not about a bridge,” Pregracke said. “It’s about the Mississippi River. It’s about getting millions of people that are just passing by on Interstate 80 to stop and have a great experience in an area I’ve spent a lifetime appreciating.”

Pregracke envisions “a more natural version of Gateway Arch National Park” in Saint Louis. Although the Missouri park is the smallest of the national parks, it still welcomes far more than a million people each year. Pregracke noted that if the Bison Bridge had solar panels for charging stations, it would give motorists another reason to visit.

Bison or buffalo? Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, the North American species is unequivocally “bison.” Its scientific name is Bison bison bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: bison).

Charting a Vision

As you might expect, Pregracke is a dreamer and a doer. The founder of Living Lands & Waters, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to river restoration, has 25 years of hands-on experience in environmental work. Pregracke was recognized in 2013 as the CNN Hero of the Year for leading more than 70,000 volunteers in removing an estimated 7 million pounds of trash from American waterways. Today, those numbers have nearly doubled.

The inspiration for the Bison Bridge project flowed from Pregracke’s lifetime passion for the Mississippi River, its powerful past and potential future. But he’s not the first to try to create a national park along Iowa’s banks. In the early 1900s, a group of conservationists championed the formation of the Mississippi River Valley National Park. They worried about shrinking natural habitats for wildlife and sought to protect an area that Indigenous people considered sacred. Although their campaign to create a national park was unsuccessful, those efforts led to the 1949 designation of Effigy Mounds National Monument, as well as a federal refuge, state forest and state park.

Today, releasing a small herd of bison to graze more than 100 feet above the Mississippi might seem like a pie-in-the-sky plan. But consider the popular network of rail-to-trail conversions and transformative projects like New York’s High Line, a park on a decommissioned elevated train line, and Little Island, a park on stilts in the Hudson River. The Bison Bridge would offer a safe passage for bison that graze in protected prairies at either end, as well as walkers, runners and cyclists who already enjoy a network of existing regional trails.

The Bison Bridge is designed for pedestrians, cyclists and animals alike.

Building Support

The Bison Bridge Foundation’s quest to create a new national park requires support from numerous local, state and national government entities, as well as donors to help fund the construction. So far, the project team has raised $4 million toward a tentative $20 million goal.

Pregracke is engaging a team of engineers, ecologists, business leaders and community members to design the next phases and build momentum for the project. People like Dan Palmer, CEO of Tri-City Electric Co., believe in the project’s potential. He began raising bison in the area 30 years ago and has pledged a startup herd for the new space. “I think it’s going to be a great asset for the area,” he said. “The bison are the icing on the cake. It’s a massive, strong animal that represents early life here. It’s America.”

If planning and development proceed according to the proposed timeline, the Bison Bridge renderings could become real as early as 2030.

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