July–August 2021

Bucket List

See the Bison at Blue Mounds

On the prairie under a big sky

Julie Forster

“Wait for me! Wait for me!” a bison cow seemed to be saying as she grunted to her herd and hurried to catch up. They were all on the move in the northern edge of their range where quartzite cliffs jut from prairie landscape under a big sky. 

I had come here to Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota to see these bison on a remaining fragment of the once vast tallgrass prairie. Now I was watching the herd of 68 animals amble on their 540-acre range, playing and chomping on grasses, sedges, and other native plants.

They had lots to communicate, it seemed. When the wind died down, I could more clearly hear the grunts and snorts and growls that made up the low rumble of conversation I wasn’t part of. The yearlings romped on the backs of their friends and challenged each other to play.

These massive beasts, which can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, represent a comeback for the American Plains bison, nearly wiped out in the late 1800s. Part of a wildlife conservation effort, the herd is managed to preserve genetically diverse bison free from cattle genes.

I followed as the bison made their way across the prairie floor. Cackling pheasants sprang from the grasses and the western meadowlark called loudly on this early spring morning.After I followed the herd for a time, I spotted the bull with his protruding shoulder hump and sharp curved horns, and enormous neck and shoulder muscles. He seemed curious at my presence. I wanted to leave them in peace so I decided it was a good time to move on.

Bison Viewing Tips

  • Look for a herd of about 100 bison, including calves and yearlings. 
  • Start at the viewing platform in the northeast part of the park. If you’re lucky they might be right at the platform taking turns in a dust bath in the wallows. Use the viewing scope to locate them. If they’re out of sight, take the Mound or Western Loop trails on the perimeter to scope them out. And don’t hesitate to ask park workers. “Our staff is good at pointing people in the right direction,” says park manager Chris Ingebretsen.
  • Park-organized Prairie and Bison Tours were suspended in 2020 and have not restarted. The 90-minute educational tours take visitors onto the range with a naturalist in a flatbed truck modified with a seating compartment.  

The Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd

  • The 150-animal bison herd is managed at four locations through a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Zoo. In addition to Blue Mounds, you can see these bison at Minneopa State Park, the Minnesota Zoo, and  Zollman Zoo near Rochester. 
  • Genetic testing found them largely free of any genetic material that would have come from crossbreeding with cattle. This makes them rare among modern bison.
  • Every few years, new bulls are introduced from a national park or national wildlife refuge to increase the herd’s genetic diversity. The bull at Blue Mounds is from Colorado State University and has genetics from the herd at Yellowstone National Park. 
  • An annual auction keeps the herd at a sustainable level and is a way to emulate what  would happen in the wild, where predators or disease would keep the population stable, says Tom Ness, a mammal curator at the Minnesota Zoo who serves as population  advisor for the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd.
  • The goal is to grow the herd to 500 wild bison, a point at which breeding stock from outside would no longer be needed. 
  • Camping, including sites where you can stay in a tipi, is available at the park.