Minnesota has had a herd of bison at Blue Mounds State Park since the 1961.

In 2008, the state’s Department of Natural Resources reevaluated its reasons for maintaining a bison herd.

And they made a key discovery.

“Part of the process was to test the animals to see if they had any cattle genetics. We thought they would have cattle genetics or hybridization,” said Alexander Watson, a regional naturalist for the Minnesota State Parks and Trails.

The answer was no. State officials learned that the herd in its park is one of the few in the country that does not have hybrid cattle genes, a legacy that dated back to when ranchers and farmers bred cattle with bison in an attempt to engineer the meat product.

That meant the state herd carried new significance.

“And we could really be a player in bison conservation on a national level,” he said.

It meant that the herd in Minnesota could be used for breeding for conservation purposes, and not just to save the bison.

“It’s been said it’s hard to know where the prairie land stops and the bison starts, they’re so interconnected,” Watson said. “The bison are really an extension of the prairie. It’s like the grass grew legs. The bison eat the prairie, they disturb the prairie, they open up the grasses for new plants to colonize for animals to find homes in the soil and they carry thousands of seeds in their coat.”

Today, there are about 200 bison in the state’s conservation program.

They are located at Blue Mounds and Minneopa State Parks, and at the Minnesota Zoo.

They’re not wild, however. The animals roam the land inside a fence. Managers also make sure the prairie isn’t overgrazed.

“There’s no tolerance for free-ranging bison herds,” Watson explained.

The program has been funded in part thanks to a $600,000 environment and natural resource trust fund grant, with revenue from the Minnesota Lottery and other sources.

Eventually, officials would like to grow the herd to 500 statewide.

That would require more land for the animals to roam. They can weigh anywhere from 900 to 2,000 pounds.

The DNR said they’re working on finding more public or private acreage so it can increase its herd size.

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One Greater Minnesota reporter Kaomi Goetz has traveled across the state to cover a spectrum of stories that range from doughnut shops to how mental health issues impact farming communities. Check out our collection. 

There’s much we still don’t fully understand about Minnesota’s iconic wildlife. For example, wildlife biologists recently learned that wolves are experts at one of our state pastimes – fishing. Check out this story.