A wild bison hasn't been observed in Minnesota since 1880, when one was spotted in Norman County.
But in recent decades, local wildlife groups have worked to increase the animal's presence in the state once again.
The Minnesota DNR and Minnesota Zoo took another step toward that goal Friday, releasing 11 "genetically rare" bison into Minneopa State Park, according to a news release.
The group includes cow and calf pairs, as well as yearling bison heifers, the release says. Some of the cows are bred and will calve next spring, with the hope being the herd eventually grows to 30-40 animals.
DNR, zoo partnership
It stems from a partnership the DNR and Minnesota Zoo entered into back in 2012, with both outfits working together to preserve the American bison. There are currently 90 or so bison at Blue Mounds State Park, released there in 1961.
A conservation herd is being grown from that and spread across the state – the Minneopa group is the first new stop for the rare bison.
Minneopa was chosen, the DNR says, partly because the bison will help manage the landscape there.
Bison, MPR reported last year, have a "unique grazing behavior" that helps support the diversity of prairie plants, and also roll in soil, making it more compact and helping with water retention.
The park is also very close to a large audience, with hundreds of thousands of people (plus numerous educational institutions) within a short drive, the DNR says.
What makes them 'genetically rare?'
The DNR says genetic testing of the Blue Mounds herd a few years ago showed they did not have genetic material that shows up if bison are cross-bred with cattle. There are more than 500,000 bison in North America – and fewer than 30,000 are free of that cross-breed material.
The entire campground side of Minneopa State Park will stay closed until the bison get used to their new environment. The park office and the waterfalls side of the park will stay open.
"We ask that the public be patient while the bison settle in," Kathy Dummer, regional manager for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division, said in a news release. "We anticipate opening things back up by mid-October."
The hope is that, eventually, the public will be able to drive personal vehicles on a hard-surface road nearby.
"Our expectation is you should have a pretty good chance of seeing the bison up close," said Ed Quinn, a DNR natural resources manager, told the Star Tribune last year. "We aren’t going to let you get out of your car."
For more on the dwindling bison numbers, and efforts to restore them, check out the DNR's conservation herd page.