Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd: Blue Mounds State Park

Bison eye closeup
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People purposely killed millions of American plains bison during the late 1800s -- a near extinction. So many died that all American plains bison living today come from less 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. Today, many different people are working in different ways to give bison a chance at a healthy future. The Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd is managed in partnership between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Zoo to preserve genetically diverse bison for the enjoyment of all people.

For complete information, see the Strategic Plan for Bison Management.

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Tell me about the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd.

This is a bison herd with high quality genetics managed for the public good through a 2012 formal agreement between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Zoo. The Minnesota Zoo will manage genetic data about the herd, provide technical assistance regarding bison management, and host several bison onsite at the zoo as part of Minnesota's greater conservation herd.

These partners are working cooperatively to preserve American plains bison with healthy genetics and conserve other prairie wildlife species native to Minnesota.

Currently the herd has approximately 130 bison at three different sites Blue Mounds State Park, Minneopa State Park and the Minnesota Zoo. Eventually the herd will grow to a 500-animal population occupying several locations. Genetic testing of the herd from 2011-2014 found them largely free of any genetic material that would have come from cross-breeding with cattle. This makes them rare among modern bison.

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 many bison live at Blue Mounds State Park?

Bison need grass to eat. Based on grass quality and quantity that grows in the bison range prairie, we estimate that 100 bison can live in the bison range. About 80 adult bison live in the range and about 20-30 calves are born each year. A round-up and auction is held each fall to keep the population sustainable. During the round-up, bison are given a health checkup and some are selected to be sold to other herds. Watch our bison round-up video. Every few years, a new bull (male) bison is selected from a National Park or National Wildlife Refuge to increase the genetic diversity of the herd. The current bull at Blue Mounds comes from Yellowstone National Park, but in an unusual way. Our Yellowstone Bison Bull fact sheet tells the bull's interesting backstory.

How can I see the bison at Blue Mounds?

Visit the bison observation deck where you can use a spotting scope to locate the herd. If you cannot see the herd from the observation deck, the bison are most likely in the southwest corner of the range, and might be visible from the Western Loop Trail. It is important that you do not enter the bison range fence, but you can get closer views by hiking along the perimeter of the range on the trail.  Another way to possibly see the bison, as well as learn more about them and the prairie they live on is to attend our one of a kind Prairie and Bison Tour.

How is this project funded?

At Blue Mounds the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) funded bison interpretive exhibits, and the Prairie and Bison Tour vehicle.

Other resources are available for interpretation, outreach, and natural resource projects, including revenue from state park operations and Legacy Amendment funds.