Panel backs Minneopa bison, expansion

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Farm Forum

MANKATO, Minn. — Mankato’s Minneopa State Park looked to be a big winner when project recommendations from the Minnesota state lottery’s environmental fund were announced on July 15.

Of the just less than $46 million available statewide, Minneopa appears in line to receive between $800,000 and $1 million — as much as $600,000 for the impending arrival of a bison herd to the prairie portion of the park west of Mankato and $400,000 for a 160-acre expansion of the park.

“It’s pretty unusual to get close to $1 million for one specific park,” said Kathy Dummer, program manager for parks and trails at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regional office in New Ulm.

The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources approved $600,000 of a $798,000 request for a project to bring bison to Minneopa from southwestern Minnesota’s Blue Mounds State Park. Most of the request is for preparations at Minneopa for the arrival of about 50 bison this fall in a fenced 350-acre prairie on the campground side of the park off of Highway 68. Nearly $250,000 to build the high-strength fencing was previously approved.

The current request includes $360,000 to design and build a “humane bison handling facility” for the annual roundup of the animals for genetic testing, transfers, micro-chip placement for animal identification and disease prevention.

“It will be designed using Grandin human livestock handling principles,” the application stated, referring to the designs by noted animal scientist Temple Grandin, who studied natural animal behavior to design cattle chutes and corrals that greatly reduce the stress levels of the animals.

The funding also will create more permanent facilities for providing water to the bison than the temporary livestock waterers being installed this year. There will be a no-maintenance quarter-acre pond built in 2016. Next fall, the 2.8-mile road around the bison range will be raised with at least 3 inches of gravel, costing $50,000.

The current sandy road serving that part of the park won’t stand up to the anticipated increase in visitors coming to see the bison, Dummer said.

“We’re going to have to do some lifting of the road — literally — to deal with what we expect will be more vehicle traffic,” she said, adding that asphalt may be required eventually if the bison prove to be a particularly popular attraction.

Another $70,000 is aimed at explaining the herd and prairie to visitors, including signs and exhibits along the road and a cellphone driving tour.

The request also included $200,000 for an off-highway vehicle, designed to look a bit like an oversized horseless covered wagon, to allow visitors to Blue Mounds to get an up-close look at the bison there. The information released by the LCCMR on July 15 didn’t specify which portion of the $798,000 in bison-related requests wouldn’t be funded, simply placing the total funding at $600,000.

The bison project, along with bringing an interesting new feature to Minneopa, is aimed at helping preserve and expand the Blue Mounds herd, which is 99.8 percent pure. Unlike many bison in America that have substantial amounts of cattle genes in their DNA, the Blue Mounds bison have 99.8 percent bison DNA.

The LCCMR also provided $1.5 million for the purchase of lands for state parks and trails, $500,000 less than the $2 million sought by the DNR for the purchase of 360 acres of land statewide to expand state parks and trails. At the top of the DNR’s priority list is the $400,000 purchase of 160 acres immediately west of the Seppman Mill area on the far western side of the non-waterfalls side of the 2,600-acre Minneopa Park.

If the DNR priority list is followed, only a $500,000 land purchase for a trail expansion in Goodhue County would fail to be funded with the LCCMR recommendations.

The Minneopa land would be purchased from a willing seller, Dummer said, with agricultural portions returned to a natural state and trails likely added.

The seller would still have the right to not make the sale, but detailed discussions have occurred between the state and the property owners in each of the proposed purchases and a final sale is likely.

The LCCMR recommendations still require authorization by the Minnesota Legislature during the 2015 session with funds becoming available for the various environmental projects on July 1, 2015.

In all, the commission received 152 requests totaling more than $126 million, paring that down to 65 recommended winners of the $45.8 million in proceeds from the sale of lottery tickets.