Roaming with the buffalo at Blue Mounds State Park

A bison rubs against a boulder.
A bison rubs against a well-worn boulder of Sioux quartzite on the prairie at Blue Mounds State Park.
Jim Brandenburg | Courtesy Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine

Only buffalo break the horizon. Shiny black horn points glint in the sun. Tails switch at flies. Hooves set dust swirling. The animals rise from a sea of rippling bromegrass, timothy and Kentucky bluegrass.

Hundreds of years ago, the scene might have stretched on for hundreds of miles.

Today, it runs to the Blue Mounds State Park boundary.

"It's easy to stand out here, especially in that tall grass, and think about what that would've been like," park manager Chris Ingebretsen told the St. Cloud Times. "There's places here you can hide the surrounding modern-day landscape pretty easily. Add the wind that is constant and the sound of the meadowlarks and the grunt of the bison."

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In one direction, the scene ends in cornfields outside Luverne, which is outlined on the horizon. At the observation platform near park headquarters, it ends where three rental teepees stand. Across U.S. Highway 75, it ends in a farmer's pasture of buffalo.

Chris Ingebretsen, park manager at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, tells about the park's genetically-pure bison herd.

For the buffalo, it nearly ended altogether.

The North American population was an estimated 45 million before Europeans moved in and hunted them to near extinction. It dwindled to fewer than 1,000 by the end of the 19th century.

Today, the herd that roams 540 acres of Blue Mounds' fenced prairie tops out at about 100. Because tall grass conceals the calves, the exact number is a surprise until the late-September roundup.

At the annual roundup, the herd is thinned and animals sold — mostly to bison producers. Since 2012, workers have collected hair and blood samples, which are sent to Texas A&M University for genetic testing.

Turns out the Blue Mounds buffalo are central to a statewide conservation effort with connections that range far beyond Minnesota's borders.

Only by accident did the Blue Mounds herd remain free of cattle genetics.

The discovery came about when Texas A&M was testing federal herds, and the Minnesota Zoo wanted to focus on bison conservation. The tests revealed cattle DNA was present in all but 1 percent of bison tested in the U.S. (The current test checks only the portion of the DNA strand where cattle genes are most likely to exist.)

"We breed tigers, leopards, we breed rare species around the world. That's where we put our resources. Then we found out about the plight of the bison," said Tony Fisher, director of animal collections.

"The zoo could help preserve the species in its pure form," Fisher said.

Pure bison herds had been preserved at Yellowstone National Park and the Bronx Zoo. But the species survived because prominent ranchers crossed them with cattle.

"If that wouldn't have happened, you wouldn't have bison today. The Yellowstone numbers that were preserved back in the 1910s and '20s wouldn't have been enough to carry the herd," Ingebretsen said. "(Ranchers') efforts were a mixture of caring and a mixture of economy."

They never did produce the hoped-for superior beef animal that could withstand the Great Plains' harsh winters.

The cattle crosses look like pure bison, but Fisher said they're smaller and less thrifty.

"They don't gain weight as fast, and they don't get to as large a size," Fisher said. Blue Mounds' yearlings average about 1,000 pounds. The dominant bull weighs more than a ton. "Apparently, it does make a difference in appearance and adaptability."

A cattle-free strain could prove heartier in the face of climate change or disease.

A bison cow with her calf.
A Blue Mounds bison cow tends to a sore inflicted by an amorous bull while her calf nurses.
Jim Brandenburg | Courtesy Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine

The zoo converted its 12 bison to a pure conservation herd, bringing in animals from South Dakota's Badlands and Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. In 2012 it partnered with the DNR and started keeping a stud book for the state park herd.

Blue Mounds' herd started in 1961 with three animals from Nebraska. Since testing started, cattle genes were discovered in three Blue Mounds animals. They were culled from the herd. Most recently, 2013 testing caught a bull brought in the previous year from Wichita Mountains in time.

"Today we have enough genetically pure bison that we can bring the species back," Ingebretsen said. "Probably not to what it was — I mean the millions of animals that crossed the Great Plains is probably a pipe dream. I don't think you'll ever see that again. But we can certainly increase the number of genetically pure bison. To do that in Minnesota, without relying on outward sources of breeding, we have to have a herd of roughly 500 animals."

Minneopa State Park is the first stop in that expansion.

Molly Tranel Nelson met us at the cattle guard.

The metal bars set into the gravel road to Seppmann Mill will mark the starting point for drive-through tours of Minneopa State Park's buffalo herd.

Evenly spaced and level with the road surface, cattle guards are what ranchers use to contain animals while allowing vehicles to pass in and out.

Eventually buffalo will wander freely. A five-strand, high-tensile, nonelectric wire fence encloses the 335-acre prairie.

Nelson, the DNR's regional resource specialist for parks and trails, has drawn from her Illinois cattle-farm background. She knew a bit about fencing and grazing.

One modification here: She marked established winter deer crossings with a GPS; the top wire is lower there to let the animals cross. The smooth wire makes it easier for smaller animals to scoot underneath.

She's learned a few things about buffalo.

"Working the bison roundup, growing up on a farm, in my head I thought that they were like cattle," Nelson said. "Bison are not like cows. People might think they're big cows, but they're not."

They're powerful, wild animals.

Fighting bulls once broke through the fence at Blue Mounds State Park, where the dominant bull today, 2,000-plus pounds of power packed into a rough-coated, hump-shouldered form, strides where it pleases. Rust-colored calves, fuzzy as plush toys, keep close to cows.

"If you don't have a mom fighting for you, this isn't a fun place to be," Ingebretsen said. Cows will push other calves away so their own can get more food. "You won't see a cow adopt a calf."

Minneopa, which has the capacity to support 35 or 40 buffalo, will start with 12 animals — pregnant cow-calf pairs and pregnant 2-year-olds from the Blue Mounds and Minnesota Zoo herds.

The animals that seem most docile at the roundup will go to Minneopa. Until they acclimate, they'll stay in a 5.3-acre pasture with hay and water. Where pullouts are built along the road will depend upon where they congregate over the winter.

Minneopa State Park near Mankato is fencing off 335 acres of prairie land to accommodate a bison herd.

"We're kind of supposed to keep it really low and quiet, just put them out there and open the door and walk away," Nelson said.

Before visitors are allowed in, DNR staff will drive the 2.25-mile road several times. Just to be sure.

"The bison that are coming from the herd at Blue Mounds, they're used to people coming up to the fence. They're used to DNR people," Nelson said. "One problem we might have is (buffalo) licking salt off the cars in the winter."

Salt blocks should solve that problem.

"Where are the buffalo?"

That's the No. 1 question at Blue Mounds State Park.

The easiest place to see them is from an observation platform overlooking a depression about the size of an RV. Here, buffalo roll in powdery diatomaceous earth to rid themselves of flies.

A hike around the perimeter is the next-best option. There is only one spot in the park, behind a rise, where the buffalo disappear entirely.

Blue Mounds State Park draws rock-climbers and photographers to its 11/2-mile long ridge of Sioux quartzite. But buffalo are the real draw.

"They're a direct link to the past. When you think about pre-European North America, this is the species that people think of and know of. There were millions of these animals roaming the prairie," Ingebretsen said.

Even watching a herd of this number — from behind a fence, with a park employee — can make a person feel a bit uneasy.

Occasionally, a buffalo rolled on its back in a dusty depression, kicking up its legs. For creatures of such size, they can move awfully fast.

They roam freely. But they don't browse. A few times a day the lead cow moves to another spot; the rest follow.

On the way back, we encountered another group of hikers who asked where to see the buffalo. You'll be able to see them along this fence, Ingebretsen said. Unless they've moved.

If conservation efforts take hold, one day buffalo might be on view at other sites in Minnesota. No one wants to speculate where. Ingebretsen, Nelson and Fisher said future sites might include tribal lands, other state parks, or public lands managed by agencies such as The Nature Conservancy or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The first step is to build up the Minneopa herd; 2017 is the earliest it might have enough buffalo to have a roundup of its own.

An AP Member Exchange shared by Ann Wessel of the St. Cloud Times