Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd: Minneopa State Park

Bison herd at Minneopa
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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 on the prairie at Minneopa State Park?

Bison need grass to eat. We estimate that 30-40 bison can live in the bison range. It will take several years to reach this limit. In summer 2018 there are 20 bison in the park.  Five calves were born spring 2018.  There is only one adult bull (male) living at Minneopa.  He comes from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.  Having him in our herd helps us add diversity.  In several years, we will bring in a new bull from a different herd.

Who are Bison Ambassadors?

Bison Ambassadors are volunteers who play an important role in helping the public better understand the purpose behind the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd and how to view these animals in a safe manner. Bison Ambassadors answer visitor questions and assist park staff by interacting with the public. They work 2-hour shifts on weekends from April through October or when needed for special events and programs.

How is this project funded?

At Minneopa the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) funded road improvements, wetland restorations to provide water for the bison, interpretive exhibits, and a corral.

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