Pitting their giant mothers, dark and heavy as the sky above one morning this week, bison calves looked picture of spring in the meadow of Minneoba State Park near Mankato this week.
They are also the image of health.
16 calves were born in the state park last month, the largest proportion of any spring since wild bison became endemic to the park. Last year, 13 calves were born there.
The famous animals are part of the Minnesota Conservation Bison Herd, which is also found in Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, Minn. It is well established in the state’s historic bison chain, as well as in the Minnesota Zoo and at Oxbow Park & Zollman Zoo in Byron, Olmsted County. Calves in Minneopa raise the park’s size to 47. Blue Mounds added 25 calves this spring. As of fall 2021, the entire herd was 114.
They are all part of a still-expanding partnership run by the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Zoo whose main goal is to preserve genes and build populations of mammals that were nearly extinct in the 19th century. The conservation herd has thrived since it was introduced in Minneopa as the state’s second park unit in 2015. Now, Dakota County parks are preparing to reintroduce bison this fall at Spring Lake Park Reserve near Hastings. Some of her herds will depend on Minneopa and other locations based on their genes, said Ed Quinn, DNR Natural Resources Program Supervisor in the Department of Parks and Trails. They will be a mix of adults (born in 2020 or earlier) and young adults aged 2021.
Quinn said Dakota County’s participation represents the direction of the herd’s future: more caretakers around parts of Minnesota as the herd grows in size toward the goal of 500 animals. This goal considers a herd size that will maintain genetic health generation after generation, free from threats such as crossbreeding with cattle.
“There is a lot of interest,” he said.
Moreover, Quinn and the other managers hope their turn will come to reciprocate with the Home Office partners who have provided bull breeding from herds in places like Yellowstone and the Badlands National Territory to help farm an uncontaminated Minnesota herd. A bull of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota gave birth to calves this spring in Minneapolis. They weigh about 45 pounds at birth but can reach 450 pounds within six months.
“We have the genetics on each of our animals, so we can have those conversations…the value of these animals and help support efforts elsewhere beyond state borders,” Quinn said.
As intended, his value as an important figure in the thriving prairie ecosystem and in the lives of the Native Americans was enhanced by their presence in Minneopa, where bison represent the stars from April through October, vying with the waterfalls as the main attraction.
“For a really healthy lawn, you need a bison,” Minneapolis State Park naturalist Scott Kodelka said of grass herders. “And for a healthy bison, you need a good meadow.”
Tim Pulis is a longtime volunteer at Friends of Minneopa State Park and Principal Bison Ambassador. He enjoyed this spring and with it the arrival of the calves. He said park workers – and even a few visitors – witnessed the birth up close, speaking about the accessibility of the bison and what makes the MInneopa experience so unique. The herd may walk in front of your car, as it did in Polis on Memorial Day morning. He captured stunning images of dark-eyed and orange to tan calves against greenery and an angry sky.
Polis, 70, brings these notes into his role as ambassador most Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the prairie overlooking Sibman Mill. On average, 200 people will attend on Saturdays to check on the bison and ask questions of Polis and other volunteers, he said.
Kudelka said interest in the Minneopa herd has overshadowed the original site, Blue Mounds, somewhat by design. Minneopa was chosen for its natural resources but also for its location in relation to densely populated areas such as the Twin Cities and Mankato. But Koudelka and Polis added that interest is far beyond Minnesota’s borders.
“The public is over-talking about this animal,” Polis said.
Bison Drive Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Tuesday.