Efforts to reintroduce bison to Dakota County park advancing this winter

A female adult bison stands in the snow.
A female adult bison stands near the herd in Blue Mounds State Park. Dakota County is working to introduce bison to Spring Lake Park Reserve near Hastings, Minn., to help keep prairie lands healthy and expand the population of bison within the state.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Work continues at Dakota County’s Spring Lake Park Reserve to prepare for the arrival next fall of new residents: bison.

It's a new part of a statewide effort to maintain a self-sustaining bison herd in Minnesota.

The bison reintroduction project at Spring Lake Park Reserve, southeast of the Twin Cities, is being supported by a $560,000 state grant. Tom Lewanski, natural resources manager for Dakota County Parks, said they're on track to relocate 15 bison to the park in fall 2022.

Lewanski said last month that about 80 percent of the necessary fencing has been installed, and some habitat restoration — such as removing trees and stumps from the ground — is expected during the winter months. Additional habitat restoration will occur before finishing the fence in the spring.

Restoring bison to the preserve will help to restore the land to the prairie habitat that was more common in the region prior to the arrival of European settlers.

“The area that is Spring Lake Park Reserve — prior to European settlement, this area was made up of prairie and oak savanna,” Lewanski said. “What we’re doing is going back to make it more like it was, pre-settlement. We’re trying to open this up to more mimic what the bison may have experienced in this area when they used to roam 200 years ago.”

The bison at the park reserve will also help a statewide effort that includes the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Zoo and other parks to establish a stable population of bison within the state.

“They’re part of our larger project we call the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd,” said Ed Quinn, the natural resource management program supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. “That’s an effort in the state to have a herd of bison. Now we’re trying to bring back a herd that has no detectable evidence of cattle DNA. So they look — both genetically and from an appearance perspective — and act like wild bison.”

Because of historical cross-breeding, most bison herds have some measurable amount of cattle DNA. Tony Fisher, the animal collections manager with the Minnesota Zoo, said studies show pure bison handle prairie ecosystems better than bison who also have cattle DNA.

“That makes sense because that’s how evolution improved them to survive,” Fisher said.

Fortunately, Fisher said Minnesota’s conservation bison herd — a collection of 114 animals at four locations throughout the state — has a lower level of cattle DNA in genetic testing. That means with careful breeding management, working with institutions across the country, Minnesota could help restore its herd to a purer bison gene pool over generations.

But it also requires having enough animals — a minimum of about 500 — to have a population genetically diverse enough to be resilient to possible threats.

“That would make us pretty self-reliant within our cooperative herd,” Fisher said. “We won’t have to go out shopping for new bulls every once in a while just to try and keep our genetic diversity up. We can just rotate animals between all the subunits of our herd to keep genetic diversity healthy for a long time.”

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