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Bison back, booming

Mothers and calves thriving at Minneopa 

When Terri and Warren Michels spent part of Memorial Day weekend as bison range volunteers at Minneopa State Park, rural Mankato, they learned how popular the bison are. Terri said, “There were more than 300 visitors that weekend.”

This bison calf poses for the camera as its mother grazes in the background at Minneopa State Park near Mankato. Photo by Craig Beckman, park manager.

In preparation for being bison range volunteers, the Michels completed a training session at the state park. Scott Kudelka, Minneopa area naturalist, said when the bison first arrived at the range, people called and volunteered to “take care of the bison.” A program was developed for volunteers, beginning with a four-hour informational meeting that includes learning the basics of bison biology, the concept of the Minnesota conservation herd and proper viewing etiquette, which is followed by shadowing longtime Minneopa State Park board member and volunteer Tim Pulis.

The training proved valuable for the Michels. Terri said, “We just had so much fun as volunteers. We picked up our orange vests from the DNR office by Minneopa Falls and a duffel bag that contained bison bones, pieces of hide, and pamphlets to read from and to distribute. We spread it all out at Seppman Mill for visitors to see, feel and read. There are two new large plaques that tell about the bison, one in English, one in a Native American language.

“I’m just amazed at where people come from,” she said. “We met people from South Carolina, and even the Netherlands, whose local families arrange to have them see the bison. A couple from Detroit going to the Twin Cities heard about the bison and came to Minneopa.”

After visitors obtain a permit and a map at the park office and drive on toward the bison enclosure, they often can view the bison through a scope and take a photo through the scope with a cell phone. Warren Michels said, “The spotting scope is set up like a telescope. It’s pretty detailed. It looks like you could touch the bison.”

A bison calf plays in the grass near several adults. Photo by Craig Beckman, park manager.

Terri added, “There is no guarantee, though, of bison being sighted 100 percent of the time. Sometimes they are in a watering hole, and when they’re lying down on the prairie, chewing their cud, they may look like rocks.” Visitors usually find the bison more active in the morning and evening.

Although some visitors to the park may casually use the word “buffalo,” the scientific name of Minneopa’s 30 residents is “bison bison.” (The term is used twice and in Greek means “ox-like animal.”) The Native American population, however, used the term “buffalo,” according to Kudelka.

Conservation officials take pride in Minneopa State Park having a 330-acre bison range that will eventually support 35 to 40 animals. The bull will be replaced after four years to prevent interbreeding, and an annual round-up will begin this year to test the DNA of any new bison and to sell off all males born into the herd. Ten calves were born in the park this spring. (Most bison calves are born in May or June.)

Bison have a history in the area. The city of Mankato maintained a zoo in Sibley Park for many years, including a small bison herd. Although a massive flood destroyed the zoo in 1965, killing many animals, six bison were saved by moving them to higher ground. In 1970, it was decided to move them to Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota. An agreement was signed between the city of Mankato and the Department of Natural Resources that an attempt would be made to bring bison back to the Mankato area. In September 2015, the bison finally arrived.

Scott Kudelka, Minneopa area naturalist. Photo by Craig Beckman, park manager.

It took a few years of hoping and planning by park officials before the return of the bison was underway. The process included one year of preparation of the grounds. Kudelka said, “You really can’t have bison without prairie.” A fence was built around pasture on the campground side of Minneopa, and a well was dug.

In September 2015, 11 females (three of which were pregnant) came to Minneopa—some from Blue Mounds State Park, others from the Minnesota Zoo. They are part of an initiative called the “Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd,” part of a national effort to preserve the genome of the North American plains bison.

In December 2016, a bull arrived from the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, having spent a month in quarantine at the Minnesota Zoo. His reception by the herd was an example of individual bison exhibiting various temperaments. The lead cow and some of the older females went into stress mode, sticking their tails up into the air and running the bull around the smaller enclosure and, at one point, completely away from the rest of the herd. Some of the other animals continued to graze even as the bull was being run around them.

Mama bison with their calves resting comfortably at Minneopa State Park. Photo by Craig Beckman, park manager.

Kudelka said the lead cow has become very territorial. She will rush the fence if she feels people are too close and will even hit her head on the fence.

Proper bison viewing etiquette includes keeping the vehicle 75 feet (one quarter of a football field) away from the bison, remaining in the vehicle when on the range, and not letting dogs (or any other animal) out of the vehicle except leashed. Visitors can tune to 1610 am on the car radio for a detailed narrative.

Warren and Terri Michels are frequent visitors to Minneopa State Park. They not only have brought local family members to see the bison, but the Michels have even done bison Face Time with family members who live on the East Coast. As for people within driving distance of Minnoepa, Terri said, “I really encourage people to come out and learn about the bison and the prairie—the two go hand in hand.”

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