Eleven genetically rare bison have been released into Minneopa State Park near Mankato as part of the newest efforts by the Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Zoological Gardens (Minnesota Zoo) to expand the Minnesota Conservation Bison Herd.
At one time, bison herds in North America were estimated to number between 30 and 60 million animals, and they roamed throughout Minnesota except the northeastern portion. Populations in Minnesota are unknown, but reports from the 1700s to 1800s suggest they were numerous. During the late 19th century, bison were hunted to near extinction until less than 1,000 animals remained in the entire United States. The last wild bison observed in Minnesota was in Norman County in 1880.
Bison were reintroduced to Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne in 1961. Genetic testing of the herd from 2011-2013 found they were largely free of any genetic material that would have come from cross-breeding with cattle, making them rare. Of the more than 500,000 bison in North America, less than 30,000 fit into this category.
DNR/Minnesota Zoo partnership
In 2012, The Minnesota Zoo and the DNR entered into an agreement to work together to preserve the American bison. The Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd will be grown from the 90 bison at Blue Mounds State Park to a 500-animal herd occupying several locations. Minneopa State Park will be the first of these additional locations welcoming the rare bison.
Minneopa State Park was selected for several reasons:
- The park has a large potential audience with over 200,000 people within 50 miles.
- Numerous nearby educational institutions are potential research partners.
- The park contains sufficient prairie to accommodate a bison herd.
- The reintroduction of bison will help naturally manage the prairie landscape.
“We are 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 right here in Minnesota.”
The group of 11 bison brought to Minneopa include cow/calf pairs and yearling bison heifers; some of the cows are bred and will calve next spring. Eventually the herd will grow to 30-40 bison.
The public will be allowed to drive personal vehicles through the range on a hard-surfaced road. The interpretive focus will be the historic relationship between bison and humans. However, it will take time for the bison to get used to their new home.
Kathy Dummer, regional manager for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division, said the entire campground side of Minneopa State Park will be closed until the bison are acclimated. “We ask that the public be patient while the bison settle in,” Dummer said. “We anticipate opening things back up by mid-October.”
The waterfalls side of the park and the park office will remain open.
Updates on the bison and more information on Minneopa State Park can be found on the park page. For more information on the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, visit the conservation herd page. The park is located off U.S. Highway 169 and State Highway 68, 5 miles west of Mankato.
About the Minnesota Zoo
The Minnesota Zoo is a year-round destination located in Apple Valley, just minutes south of Mall of America. Its mission is to connect people, animals and the natural world to save wildlife. For more information, call 952-431-9500 or visit the zoo Web page. The Minnesota Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and an institutional member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.