First breeding bull introduced to Minneopa bison herd

The first breeding bull has arrived at Minneopa State Park near Mankato, bringing to 15 the number of bison at the park, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The yearling bull comes from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and spent a month quarantined at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

“This is a milestone,” said DNR regional naturalist Alex Watson. “Nearly 130 years after the last wild and free bison disappeared from Minnesota and narrowly escaped extinction, this bull symbolizes the success of past conservation, and the need to always look forward.”

Eleven bison were reintroduced to Minneopa in the fall of 2015. The herd expanded to 14 with the birth of three calves in 2016. It’s hoped the newly-acquired bull will successfully breed bison cows within the existing herd, strengthening the herd’s genetic similarities with its free-ranging ancestors from two centuries ago.

That point is important, said Tony Fisher with the Minnesota Zoo. “We need to occasionally bring animals from outside the herd to ensure the herd’s genetics maintain a healthy amount of diversity.”

The bison are part of the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, managed through a formal agreement between the DNR and Minnesota Zoo. The partners are working together to preserve American plains bison and plan to grow the herd at several locations including Blue Mounds State Park, Minneopa State Park and the Minnesota Zoo. The goal is a 500-animal herd at multiple 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. Less than 1 percent of all American plains bison tested so far have been found free of cattle genes.

“The herd is not yet large enough to sustain reproduction on its own, so this new addition is very valuable,” Fisher said.

Watson offered some tips for viewing the bison. “The new bull may be only a year and half old, but he is already the same size as the adult cows, which might make him hard to identify. He has a noticeably longer beard and thicker horns that point outward. Female bison usually have horns that curve in. The new bull also has a temporary ear tag required for transportation from North Dakota that will eventually be removed. For now, this makes him easy to spot if you see the tag.”

Bison viewing tips:

The bison drive begins near the campground off state Highway 68. A vehicle permit ($5/one-day or $25/year-round) is required to enter the park.

Bison may be difficult to spot at times. Visitors should drive slowly and keep a watchful eye as they go through the range.

Remain inside vehicle while driving through the bison range.

Bison should be given clearance of at least 75 feet from people and vehicles at all times.

Dogs can make bison nervous, so pets must be kept on a leash while in the park and hiking around the bison range.

Bison get nervous around loud noises or lots of activity, so keep voices down and movements to a minimum to help keep the bison within easy viewing.

Hiking is not allowed inside the range, but there are hiking trails all the way around the outside of the range that can provide some fantastic views of the bison.

Minneopa State Park is located off U.S. Highway 169 and state Highway 68, 5 miles west of Mankato. The bison range road is open Thursday through Tuesday each week from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.