Minnesota's Bison Conservation Herd

Bison eye closeup

Why the Minnesota conservation herd is special.


American plains bison once ranged freely across nearly all of the Midwest, including all but northeastern Minnesota. Then people purposely killed tens of millions of bison during the late 1800s -- a near extinction. So many died that all American plains bison living today come from fewer than 100 survivors. Saved from extinction by a handful of ranchers, bison still face modern challenges to their future. Small herd sizes, crossbreeding with cattle and a lack of prairie to roam create long-term problems for bison.

There are currently around 370,000 bison in North America, most of them raised as part of the livestock-to-table industry. Only about 31,000 are in conservation herds. Conservation herds are managed by state, federal, tribal or nongovernmental organizations, and are specifically focused on protecting wild bison and preserving their genetic diversity.

All modern bison have some cattle DNA. Annual genetic testing of the Minnesota conservation herd has found it to have approximately two percent cattle DNA, which would have come from cross-breeding with cattle. This means our herd's genetics are highly diverse, similar to historic wild bison herds. 

Who are the partners - where can I see the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd?

The Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd originated in 2012 and now includes partners at several locations. Each partner manages its bison herd for high quality genetics and cooperates with the other partners by sharing research and expertise. The long-term goal of the conservation herd is to grow to 500 animals statewide to ensure the herd's long-term sustainability.

Read the DNR Parks and Trails Division Strategic Plan for Bison Management.

You can visit the bison conservation herd at any of the current partners. Each location provides a different public experience and interpretive focus. 

Blue Mounds State Park is home to a sustainable herd of approximately 80-90 animals on just over 530 acres. This herd originated in 1961 with two bulls and a cow. The interpretive focus is on the relationship between bison and the prairie. A unique public experience here is the naturalist-led Prairie and Bison tour, which takes people seasonally into the bison range on a 12-passenger open-sided vehicle that can accommodate one wheelchair.

Minneopa State Park is home to 30-40 animals on about 325 acres. Visitors drive their own vehicles through the range and can enjoy pre-recorded interpretive information over their vehicle radios. The interpretive focus is on the historic relationship between bison and humans. 

Minnesota Zoological Garden houses 12-15 animals on six acres, allowing up-close viewing for over 1.2 million visitors every year. The interpretive focus here is on the evolving science of bison conservation biology. The Minnesota Zoo's veterinary staff provide much of the health care for the Minnesota conservation herd, while its zoologists work hard to coordinate DNA testing and breeding efforts.

Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo houses up to seven animals on five acres. Visitors can watch the bison from viewing platforms or learn about them from naturalist-led events. The interpretive focus is on using bison as educational ambassadors. 

Spring Lake Park Reserve Bison Prairie is re-introducing six animals on 160 acres in spring of 2023. In this location, the bison will be integral to the park's prairie restoration. The Mississippi River Greenway passes near the bison prairie.

What's the difference between buffalo and bison?

In North America, both words are used by different people to talk about the same animal. This causes some confusion. Biologists like to use the word bison.

There is also a totally different animal called a buffalo that lives in Africa and Asia.

Early French explorers called the North American animals "les boeufs," meaning oxen. The name evolved from "boeufs" with many variations to "buffelo" and finally to its present "buffalo”.

The word buffalo is widely used by people. It is not wrong, but it is less descriptive to a biologist.

The most descriptive name for the animals living in the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd is American plains bison.

How do you manage the health and genetics of the bison?

Each Minnesota conservation herd partner participates in a fall herd management day, typically within the same week. On this day, the bison are gathered quietly into corrals for annual herd management. This is not a "roundup" - there are no horses, ATVs, or whooping or yelling, and we do not capture or chase the bison. Food is used to entice the bison into corral areas and handling facilities on their own terms. Unnecessary stress is kept to a minimum, and biologists observe and record all indications of stressed animals on the day of the fall herd management.

Bison are moved as quietly as possible through a corral system to a "squeeze chute," which holds an animal securely in place while the veterinarian does their work. Usually a bison is in and out of the squeeze chute in about three minutes. Some of the most common veterinary procedures have included:

  • Taking DNA samples to test genetics.
  • Implanting or checking RFID transponder tags.
  • Inoculating against common bison diseases such as bovine tuberculosis and pink eye.
  • Testing for diseases such as COVID-19 and Johne's Disease.

Other than the fall herd management day, most of the partner herds are not handled or managed the rest of the year. This is often the first time each year we can confidently answer how many animals are in some of the larger herds, as it can be difficult to count spring calves from a distance. 

After passing through the squeeze chute, most bison return back to the range. Some are transferred to other conservation organizations, and others go to auction. 

How is this project funded?

Major support for management of the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd is provided by:

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