Pure bison herd expands to Minneopa State Park

A pure bison herd is roaming at Minneopa State Park near Mankato thanks to a new effort between the Minnesota Zoo and Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).       Contributed photo

A pure bison herd is roaming at Minneopa State Park near Mankato thanks to a new effort between the Minnesota Zoo and Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Contributed photo

Hundreds of years ago massive bison herds roamed the great plains landscape of North America and were estimated to number between 30 and 60 million animals.

Bison had a presence in Minnesota as well, except for the northeastern part, and reports from the 1700s to 1800s showed a healthy population ranging across the territory.

Despite all the numbers, the bison were ruthlessly pursued into near extinction by the westward surge of pioneers and market hunters during the late 19th century until less than 1,000 animals remained in the United States.  The last wild bison observed in Minnesota was in Norman County in 1880.

Twenty-five years later in 1905 the American Bison Society started efforts to save the bison when small genetically pure herds were protected in preserves such as Yellowstone National Park as well as with bison bred at the New York Bronx Zoo.

Fast forward 100 years and another zoo is helping lead an effort to focus on bison conservation.  In 2012, the Minnesota Zoo and the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) entered into an agreement to work together to conserve the pure bison genome in the state.  The goal is to promote genetically cattle-free bison, the same type of animal that one roamed the plains and could prove healthier in the face of climate change or disease.

Over the years, as bison populations across the country began to recover and multiply, resourceful ranchers began the practice of cross-breeding domestic cattle with conservation bison herds for commercial purposes.

However, the genetically altered bison changed the character of the animal, which is now prevalent in more than 500,000 plains bison.  The cattle-crossed bison look like pure bison, but they’re smaller and weigh less. The idea was to create winter-hardy-like bison with docile-like traits of cattle.

Today only a fraction of the country’s bison fit into the category of pure bison roaming in conservation herds on public lands.  DNA testing reveals that less than 30,000, or about one percent, of the world’s remaining American plains bison have tested free of cattle genes.

Bison were reintroduced to Blue Mounds State Park in far southwestern Minnesota in 1961 with three animals from Nebraska and has since grown to a herd of about 90 to100 bison.

The pure bison herd viewing trail opened to the public in mid-October at Minneopa State Park. Photo by Steve Palmer

The pure bison herd viewing trail opened to the public in mid-October at Minneopa State Park.
Photo by Steve Palmer

Officials were pleasantly surprised to learn when DNA test results conducted by Texas A&M researchers in 2011-2013 revealed the Blue Mounds herd was largely free of any cattle cross-breeding strains.  The rare Blue Mound bison appear to be among the most authentic genetically pure herd found in the U.S.

The discovery means the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd will be grown from Blue Mounds bison into a 500-animal pure herd occupying special locations around the state.  Minneopa State Park, situated next to Highway 68 west of Mankato, has been chosen as the first expansion step for raising a state park bison herd.

At the Blue Mounds annual late September roundup by wranglers and researchers, 11 genetically pure bison were removed and released into Minneopa State Park.  The group of animals brought to Minneopa included two cow/calf pairs and yearly bison heifers.  Some of the cows are bred and will calve next spring.  Eventually the herd is expected to grow to 30-40 bison.

Minneopa State Park was selected for several reasons among them being close to a large population audience with over 200,000 people living within 50 miles of the park’s border.  When the herd arrived the animals were allowed to get acclimated to their new surroundings before the Bison Range viewing trail opened to the public in mid-October.

Park officials were overwhelmed by public interest in the bison during the first weekend when the range opened to visitors, and more than 2,000 personal vehicles drove through the winding two-mile trail to view the animals.  Metal cattle bars are set into the road’s two entrances allowing traffic to pass through but keep the bison inside during the drive through tour.

Bison are still wild animals and North America’s largest mammal.  A full-grown bull bison can weigh nearly a ton and stand more than 6 feet tall at the shoulder.  Trail signs are posted warning the public to remain in vehicles when driving through the fenced 350-acre area.

Selected parks for future bison relocation need to have a few hundred acres of grassland, adequate water resources to support a herd of 50 or more animals and enough space for handling facilities to accommodate roundups or transportation of bison.

Other qualifications that made Minneopa an attractive location for a herd was that the park contained sufficient prairie landscape which will naturally be managed by the bison and numerous nearby educational institutions as potential research partners.

Besides the two parks, the Minnesota Zoo has also converted its 12 bison into a pure conservation herd.  Zoo staff coordinates the genetic testing and pedigree tracking of the bison herd, and due to space constraints, all bison calves born at the zoo will be released into the two park herds at the yearling age.

“We’re excited about our bison conservation partnership with the DNR,” said Tony Fisher, Minnesota Zoo director of animal collections.

“The Minnesota Zoo works on animal conservation projects around the world, and we are proud to now be helping a rare species thrive right here in Minnesota,” he added.