Bison have become our most famous residents
May 7—When media and visitors from the Twin Cities and across the state arrive here late next week for the Governor's Fishing Opener, the bison range at Minneopa State Park will be atop the itinerary of events.
The visitors will get a treat as bison calves will be romping across the prairie as they test out their legs and explore the 325 acre enclosure.
The first two babies arrived earlier this week and there could soon be up to 15 born, matching or surpassing last year's record 14 births.
It's been just seven years since the first small herd of bison was brought to the park by the Department of Natural Resources. The move marked a significant step to expand the bison herd statewide.
And the herd has become irresistible to visitors who can drive through the bison range. Once a lesser visited park in the system, Minneopa has catapulted into the top 10 of state parks in Minnesota. And its popularity has lifted visitor numbers at the nearby Flandrau State Park in New Ulm.
The bison have become our local superstars. They're impressively large, the calves irresistibly cute and bison have special stature in the nation's history.
The end of April to mid-May brings a major stream of visitors as the calves are born. Nearly every bison in the U.S. is born in that short window because of something called birth synchrony.
It is an evolutionary adaptation that helps the cows and the calves. Being born early spring gives the young time to grow strong before the next winter sets in and the cows, after going through winter and the stress of birthing, will have green grass available to rebuild their strength and optimize milk production.
The Minneopa bison and some of the other herds being built up in the state are relatively unique because they have high quality genetics descending from the type of bison Lewis and Clark gazed upon in the 1830s. After the millions of bison that once covered the west were slaughtered almost to extinction, many of the remaining bison were cross bred with cattle and lack a pure genetic line.
Minneopa is part of the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, which is managed by the DNR and the Minnesota Zoo to preserve genetically diverse bison. While located in a growing number of different locations, the idea is to manage all of them as one Minnesota herd that they hope to grow to at least 500 head.
The Minneopa herd, which had 31 head not counting this year's births, is about at its maximum for the amount of grazing land available. That means many of the yearling bison will be sent to other locations. The young males, in particular, are sent to other herds when they approach the age of breeding, a move that prevents inbreeding and makes life easier for the adult bull who doesn't have to fight young bulls come breeding season.
The Minneopa prairie is increasingly looking more like a prairie. With the increased use and interest in the park, Minneopa has the resources to finally begin putting a dent in the invasive sumac that covered a lot of the landscape. Each year less brush and more grass is emerging, something that should improve grazing potential.
There may be hope for the park supporting a larger herd if the west end of the bison range and park are extended. While the waterfalls area was made a park in 1905, the bison range portion of the park was added in the 1960s. A look at a map shows the actual park stretches — not always contiguously — all the way to Judson along the north side of Highway 68.
There have been hopes by some to eventually add some private parcels and formally extend the park to the west.
The addition of the bison has been a grand success for the Mankato area, bringing an attraction that isn't easily found in most places.
Tim Krohn can be contacted at email@example.com or 720-1300.