Minnesota Nature Wildlife

Wild Bison in Minnesota

Did you know that as of September 2015, Minnesota has two herds of wild bison?

Bison Moody Sky

Wild Bison History

At one time it is estimated that millions of bison roamed much of North America; from the forests of Alaska to the grasslands of Mexico, from the Great Basin in Nevada all the way to the eastern Appalachian Mountains. But by the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few Native American tribes and intervention by the Dept. of the Interior, bison would be extinct today. Yellowstone National Park is the only area in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times.

These magnificent animals are the largest mammal in North America. Bulls can weigh up to 2000 lbs and stand 6 feet tall, while the cows are about 1200 lbs and reach a height of 5 feet. Calves (aka “Red Dogs” because newborns are orange-red in color) are born in the spring and weigh anywhere from 30-70 lbs at birth.

Bison Calf

Wild Bison in Minnesota

Bison once thrived on the tall grass prairies in western Minnesota, but have been completely eliminated from the wild. Our two “wild” herds at Blue Mounds State Park and now Minneopa State Park are contained within the confines of the park and are heavily managed. There is simply not enough grassland to support the herds, so their diet is supplemented during the winter months. They also receive vaccinations for pink eye during the fall round-up. Today, bison are found in small, fragmented populations and are unable to roam free across the nation due to human land-use. As a result, several small herds of genetically pure bison are managed as one large herd,  so new genes can be added to populations every time bison are removed and added to the various herds during roundups.

Blue Mounds Bison Double Exposure
Blue Mounds Bison Double Exposure

Pure Wild Bison

Approximately 95% of bison living today have beef DNA in their genes because of crossbreeding with cattle at some point in their lineage. The Minnesota DNR and Minnesota Zoo are working to preserve the pure bison species. The wild bison herd at Blue Mounds State Park is one of the most genetically authentic herds left in the US! In September 2015, eight cows from Blue Mounds and three from the Minnesota Zoo were released at Minneopa State Park to create a new wild bison herd. Three calves were born there last summer and a new breeding bull from Teddy Roosevelt Nat’l Park will be introduced to that herd. Four cows at the Minnesota Zoo have also been impregnated with embryo transfers from Yellowstone bison to further expand the genetics, with hopes that one of those offspring (to be born this spring) is a male that will become a breeding bull here in Minnesota.

bison in pond

Where To See Pure Bison in Minnesota

Blue Mounds State Park in the southwest corner of the state near Luvurne. There is a bison ranch that sits adjacent to the park, so the animals you see off to your right when you enter the park are NOT the wild bison herd! Best opportunity to see the “real deal” is by hiking along the Western Loop Trail at the south end of the park.

Minneopa State Park allows passenger vehicles to drive right through the enclosed bison range, but you are not allowed to get out of your car. I’ve had bison walk right next to my car when I’ve been there – close enough that you feel like you can reach out and touch them. (Don’t). There are also hiking trails all along the outside of the bison range, or you may be able to spot them from the Seppmann Mill overlook.

Minneopa Bison

Minnesota Zoo along the outdoor Northern Trail. You’ll also see Prairie Dogs and Pronghorn Antelope in the same general area.

Landscape Minnesota Nature Wildlife

Blue Mounds Minnesota

Most of the time when I shoot in my home state, it’s within an hour of the Twin Cities or up along the North Shore of Lake Superior. But Minnesota is a large and diverse state, with everything from farmland to deciduous forests to conifer forests, loaded with lakes in most places (but not all), and rolling prairies filled with wildflowers and grasses that get taller than most people. This past weekend, I finally made a trip to the extreme southwestern corner near Luverne, MN to Blue Mounds State Park and the prairies of Minnesota!

Prairie Wall area of Blue Mounds State Park
Prairie Wall area of Blue Mounds State Park

Blue Mounds

Blue Mounds is one of Minnesota’s hot rock climbing spots, so it’s surprising that I’d never made it out here during my climbing days. The Sioux quartzite cliffs stretch about a mile and a half and reach a height of 90 feet. The rock is a beautiful mix of pink, purple, red, orange, and yellow hues that seem to change color with the time of day and direction of the sun. The abundant rock outcrops and shallow soil prevented this small patch of land from being plowed as agriculture moved into the area, but heavy grazing has diminished many of the native grasses and wildflowers that make up the prairie.

Pre-dawn Prairie Sky

The area is rich with Native American history and I highly recommend visiting the Jeffers Petroglyphs and Pipestone National Monument if you ever venture to this area. I may do separate posts about those two locations at some point 🙂

Antique Tepee

I started my day by getting up and out on the trail at 4 am to catch the sunrise. It was a doozy! Hot, humid, hazy, and windy.

Prairie Sunrise

Prairie Sunrise

Blue Mounds Wildlife

While watching the sun rise, there was a herd of wild bison off to my left grazing peacefully and a chorus of morning bird-songs filled the air. Pure bliss. Several of the birds are not regulars in the Twin Cities, so it was fun to see and hear things like Bobolinks, Common Nighthawks, Dickcissels, and Rock Pigeons just to name a few.

Rock Pigeon Shadow
Rock Pigeon pair casting a shadow

Another major Blue Mounds attraction is the aforementioned small herd of genetically pure wild bison that roam the prairie in this park. By genetically pure, I mean that they don’t have beef DNA that most of today’s bison have since many were crossbred (naturally as well as intentionally) with cattle over the years. They can be tricky to spot in the rolling landscape and tall grass, but I did manage to find them. They were too busy grazing with their heads down in the tall grass to get good photos, but still magnificent to watch.

Blue Mounds Prairie Plants

The prairies are beautiful and change by the week with different wildflowers and grasses blowing in the breeze.

Prairie Wildflowers

And yes, there are native cactus in Minnesota! Patches of prickly pear grow in the shallow soil atop the Sioux quartzite outcrops. A few of them were in bloom, sporting beautiful yellow flowers.

Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly Pear Cactus

Equally spectacular as the sunrises are the sunsets. The mostly Big Bluestem grasses seen in this photo can grow up to seven feet tall!

Prairie Sunset
Prairie Sunset

To See More or Purchase

If you’d like to see more photos from southwestern Minnesota’s prairies, check out the galleries 🙂