DNR bringing bison in prairie setting closer to more Minnesotans than ever

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Farm Forum

After managing bison on one swath of state land for more than a half-century, conservation officials are poised to soon introduce a second herd of the prairie beasts to Minnesota parkland, officials said on March 31.

The move will bring the once-nearly extinct mammal closer to more Minnesotans in its natural setting than ever.

About 350 acres at Minneopa State Park, just west of Mankato, will be fenced off and populated with some of the bison currently at Blue Mounds State Park, near Luverne, and a handful from the Minnesota Zoo, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Bringing North America’s largest land mammal to Minneopa “will restore a missing piece of the state park’s native plant and animal communities and create a significant new attraction for park visitors,” reads the latest version of the plan.

Once roughly 40 bison settle in at Minneopa as soon as this fall, additional locations will be identified for herds that would top out the total in state parks at about 500 head, said Jade Templin, a principal planner for the DNR’s Parks and Trails division. The Blue Mounds herd, established in 1961, fluctuates between 80 and 100 head.

There are no managed herds on federal land, and other bison in the state are raised as livestock.

The DNR saw several strong reasons for Minneopa winning out over a list of potential sites: the substantial number of visitors from Mankato and from the Twin Cities area less than 2 hours away; sufficient remnant and restored prairie within the targeted acreage; excellent vistas and current roads and facilities to enhance viewing by visitors; and potential educational and research partnerships with nearby Minnesota State University Mankato and Gustavus Adolphus College.

The prairie set aside for the bison will be bisected by a road, allowing visitors to drive among a herd whose full-grown males will weigh about a ton and stand nearly 6 feet tall at the shoulder.

“Our expectation is you should have a pretty good chance of seeing the bison up close,” said Ed Quinn, a DNR natural resources manager, who cautioned, “We aren’t going to let you get out of your car.”

The road winds to historic Seppmann Mill, where visitors can scan the timeless horizon and see bison amble along the prairie much as their ancestors did centuries earlier, said Ed Quinn,

“How cool to look into Minnesota’s past of native prairie remnant,” Quinn added. “You really don’t see houses and power lines and all that stuff.”

The bison, commonly but not altogether accurately referred to as buffalo, once thrived on Minnesota’s prairies. However, by 1900, settlement and slaughter by market hunters and the Army combined to reduce its numbers to a captive handful.

“It’s eagles, bison, it’s these things [in nature] that people can get all excited about,” Quinn said, trying to explain the human fascination with certain species. “There’s been a push to make the bison the national mammal.

“It was one of the first that was facing extinction that faced a groundswell of support to save. Those are the things that make it iconic.”

The bison transferring from Blue Mounds and the zoo in Apple Valley will be chosen keeping in mind that the DNR wants to “create something that is a natural herd,” the DNR’s Templin added, paying attention to having the right mix of gender and age.

“The idea is that the bison will maintain themselves out on the landscape,” Templin said. “We will not feed them like cattle.”

State conservation officials also see enclosed park settings as the best way to keep bison as genetically pure as possible by limiting the introduction of cattle genes, he said.

Minneopa State Park, established in 1905 and located just north of Hwy. 169, contains southern Minnesota’s largest waterfall amid its 2,691 acres. Park facilities include a campground, group camps, picnic areas, a visitor center, and trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.