Minnesota is home to some very special bison herds – and events at two state parks Saturday will give people a chance to learn about these once-rare animals.
For National Bison Day (which yes, is a thing), the Minnesota DNR is encouraging the the public to come out to Blue Mounds and Minneopa state parks.
At Blue Mounds, from 1-3 p.m., park naturalists will be around to answer any questions you might have. You can guide yourself around the park, which includes a viewing platform to see the bison. There will be some binoculars to borrow, if you don't have your own to bring.
At Minneopa, from 10:30-11:30 a.m., a naturalist will be there to talk about saving the bison. You're supposed to meet at the campground – make sure you're wearing clothing and boots that are good for hiking.
The events are free, but you need a vehicle permit ($7 for the day or $35 for the year).
So why these bison, at these specific parks? Both sites are home to some genetically rare bison.
What does that mean and why is it important?
There used to be 30-60 million bison roaming the United States and much of Minnesota, but during the late 19th century they were hunted to near extinction.
In recent years, the DNR and Minnesota Zoo have been collaborating to rebuild the state's bison population.
But they want as genetically pure bison as possible.
You see, there are more than a half-million of the animals in the United States – but 99 percent of them have tainted genes. That's because over the years bison were cross-bred with cattle, altering their appearance and adaptability, the Minnesota Zoo explains.
The bison in Blue Mounds and Minneopa state parks? They don't have the genetic material that shows up from cross-breeding with cattle. That makes them quite rare, since less than 1 percent of the remaining American plains bison are believed to be genetically pure in that way, the zoo says.
The goal, according to the DNR, is to have groups of 500 at both state parks, plus the Minnesota Zoo. But they're still a ways off from that figure.
The DNR says there are a total of 130 across the three sites right now. The first 11 were introduced to Minneopa in September of 2015, and it was up to 15 in February of 2017, the Great Lakes Echo reported.
They roam an area of 331 acres at Minneopa, but there is a bison drive open 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. every day except Wednesdays to help you see them better. (You have to stay in your car while on the drive.)
Meanwhile a 2-year-old bull that is a descendant of bison in Yellowstone (which has genetically pure bison) was recently introduced to Blue Mounds.