Conservation in action: Restoring North America’s bison population

Bison at Minneopa State Park // Photo by Scott Roemhildt

Bison at Minneopa State Park // Photo by Scott Roemhildt

In order to obtain the space and resources needed to support the herd’s growth, Blue Mounds State Park partnered with the Minnesota DNR and the Minnesota Zoo to find other land that could sustain groups of pure bison. When the Blue Mounds herd began to push past 100 head last summer, for instance, eight bison, along with three more from the Minnesota Zoo, were transferred to Minneopa State Park in Mankato.

Wild bison hadn’t grazed the lands comprising Minneopa State Park in 180 years, but Nelson says the park’s proximity to potential research partners and educational institutions made it an ideal reintroduction site for the bison. Plus, with 335 acres of available prairie, the park has the capacity to support up to 40 bison. It has the necessary infrastructure, too; park staff recently erected a new fence and dug a well to provide the bison with a reliable water source. With those improvements completed, Nelson says the staff won’t interfere with the bison going forward. “It’s going to be hands off, no feeding. We want them to be a wild herd.”

Participating in the animal-restoration project is the latest step Minneopa has taken toward restoring native prairie within its grounds. Another initiative took place just last summer, when, in conjunction with the Minnesota Prairie Plan—a 25-year project that began in 2011 with the goal to protect and restore native prairie and wetlands—the Indian Plantain wildflower was reintroduced at the park, right within the bison’s grazing area. “We hope,” Nelson says, “the bison aren’t too hard on it.”


Bison in autumn // Photo by Molly Tranel Nelson

Joking aside, reintroducing the bison to Minneopa is an integral part of restoring the prairie there, as well as the park’s entire ecosystem. And that’s no small project: At the time of Minnesota’s original public land survey, which occurred between 1847 and 1908, 18 million acres of native prairie existed in the state. Today, just over one percent of that prairie remains.

“Bison control prairie grasses,” Nelson explains. “They keep trees back by rubbing their horns against them. They create wallows, mud pits where they roll around, and certain plants grow only in those wallows.” Those plants include black-eyed Susans, bergamot, and goldenrod species, among others. In turn, the wallow-loving plants attract different species of insects and animals to the prairie, making for a more diverse ecosystem that more closely resembles the one the area once housed. Each thing, however big or small, complements the whole. “Bison patties,” Nelson adds, “also contribute to nutrient cycling.”

Bison // Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR

Bison at Minneopa State Park // Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR

Three of the female bison at Minneopa are currently pregnant, with calves expected between late March and early May. As this small population of rare bison slowly builds toward that self-sustaining goal of 500, the Minnesota Zoo and DNR continue to search for partners to help with the next reintroduction site.

In the meantime, Nelson says, the bison have adapted wonderfully to their new environment at Minneopa. “Immediately they were mellow and right at home. They look like they’ve always been here.”

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About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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