Jul. 24—Dakota County was once covered in prairie wildflowers, and bison grazed through the tall grasses. Today the giant beasts of the west are few and far between.
Dakota County officials are planning to bring a herd of about 30 bison to the Spring Lake Park Reserve by fall 2022. The park, located along the Mississippi River northwest of Hastings, would join a handful of locations in Minnesota, such as Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, Minneopa State Park in Mankato and the Belwin Conservancy outside Afton, in hosting a bison herd.
"It's going to be really exciting to watch them, learn about them and see the impact they have on the 160 acres of prairie that's in the park," said Tom Lewanski, natural resources manager for Dakota County.
The bison reintroduction is part of a plan to naturalize the park's landscape by restoring the oak savanna and prairie landscape of the past.
HOW THEY'RE DOING IT
On June 10, Gov. Tim Walz signed a $560,000 grant from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to help pay for necessary renovations for the project. During the Dakota County Commissioners meeting earlier this week, the grant was authorized along with a contract to begin construction on a bison enclosure starting around the end of August.
Officials estimate it will take about $1.2 million, most of which will be gathered from outside grants, to create the enclosure.
Construction will continue in spring 2022 and go into the summer with the addition of water tanks to provide drinking water for the herd.
Tribal Historic Preservation Officers had input in the creation of the plan. Lewanski said there are plans to include educational information about the tribes and their involvement in the natural scope of the prairie.
"The relationships between the bison and these indigenous cultures were very close," Lewanski said. "So we're hoping to also tell that story."
Bison can play a crucial role in the biodiversity of the prairie landscape. The simple act of grazing by bison supports the growth of tall prairie grasses and stops woods from encroaching on the space. Bison also wallow — roll in the grass — which creates bare spaces for new seeds to grow.
"We're trying to reestablish the community, and by bringing in the bison, we're adding the important grazing piece," Lewanski said.
By bringing the bison back, Lewanski hopes the prairie ecosystem in the park will improve with the growth of new plant species and the reintroduction of other critters.
There are also plans to bring back the bullsnake and the regal fritillary, an endangered prairie butterfly that relies on prairie violets, in the future.
IS IT SAFE?
Bison can stand 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 2,000 pounds, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. However, it is unlikely the large animal will cause trouble for human observers and surrounding communities, Lewanski said.
With adequate food, water and social structure, it is unlikely a bison will move far from the paddocks if one does manage to escape. They are herd animals and don't like to be alone, according to Lewanski.
"If you meet all of those needs, they really don't want to go anywhere; they want to stay together," Lewanski said.
If a bison does manage to escape, one of the gates on the paddock will be opened to let it back inside with the herd. Lewanski said escapes are very rare and usually occur from human error rather than attempts by the animal.