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Bison release kicks off summer stay for animals in the St. Croix Valley

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A herd of dozens of bison returned to their summer home in the St. Croix Valley Saturday.

Hundreds of people gathered Saturday to watch the 30 or so bison run free on 120 acres of protected prairie land in Afton as part of the Belwin Conservancy's eighth annual bison release.

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Since 2008, the Belwin Conservancy has been the summer home to a herd of bison owned by NorthStar Bison in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, as part of an effort to restore prairie land in the river valley, the conservancy's website says.

"Their grazing patterns and behavior significantly influence the biodiversity of the prairie, Ned Phillips, of Belwin Conservancy, told the Pioneer Press.

Among the benefits of bison, Phillips told the Star Tribune: the shape of their hooves aerate the soil, stimulating plant growth; their grazing patterns help spread plant seed; and birds use the fur they slough off to build nests.

The public is welcome to visit the bison herd and the prairie this summer (they're typically on the prairie until October).

To get a better view of the bison, there is an observation platform located on Division Street that is open for free from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., or members of the Belwin Conservancy can take a Bison Buggy – think a safari with the bison – to get up close to the roaming animals.

Bison in Minnesota

Bison – the largest living land mammal in North America – used to thrive on Minnesota prairie lands. But by 1900, settlement and hunters reduced the number to just a handful of captive animals, the state Department of Natural Resources says.

Now, bison are considered extirpated in the wild. However, captive herds have been reintroduced to preserves and parks in Minnesota.

Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne is home to a bison herd of more than 100 animals. They were first introduced there in 1961.

The DNR is also introducing bison to the Minneopa State Park this year in an effort to keep herd genetics healthy. The DNR hopes to grow its herd at state parks to around 500 animals, the DNR notes.

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