Reintroducing Bison to Minnesota Prairies

Location

Spring Lake Park, MN

Expertise

Environment

Services

Landscape Architecture

Natural Resources

Water Resources

Herds of bison once roamed the prairies of southeastern Minnesota but nearly 150 years ago, the last wild bison disappeared due to hunting and human development. In 2011, the Minnesota Conservation Herd Partnership was formed to increase the number of pure bison and remove those that had bred with cattle. The Minnesota DNR and other local agencies have begun work to examine how they can successfully reintroduce bison to Minnesota prairies not only to restore the herd, but also as an ecological tool.

Spring Lake Park Reserve is part of the Dakota County Park System and is made up of over 1100 acres of land along the Mississippi River in Hastings. Dakota County is seeking to use bison to help restore and manage 150-acres of prairie in the park. WSB is working with county officials to plan, design, and construct the infrastructure needed to reintroduce bison to aid in prairie restoration and management efforts. The park is only one of a few Minnesota parks to reintroduce bison, offering ecological, economic, and recreational benefits to the area.

WSB started working with Dakota County in 2020 with a schematic design process to develop two options in order to successfully introduce a bison herd to the park as a means to aid in prairie restoration and management. Prairie restoration is a long and expensive process. Typically, prairies are restored by seeding or interseeding sites and removing undesired vegetation with weeding/spraying or controlled burning. The use of grazing to control plant populations by a bison herd is a fundamentally different approach.

Bison tend to roam and selectively feed on dominant grasses. Select grasses and forbs that might otherwise be choked out by dominant grasses now have a greater chance of survival. Bison also play a role in seed dispersal by actively and passively spreading seeds. Bison grazing will not only help boost diversity in plant communities but also help enhance function and stability of the prairie ecosystems.

Bison grazing is a great ecological tool to aid in prairie restoration. Bison are also an intriguing draw for visitors. Unlike other large mammals, bison are a true herding animal, moving and acting as a herd when they eat, drink, and roam the landscape. In addition, bison are recognized as the national mammal of the United States. Regional Tribal nations are also communicating with the County to help teach about their ancestors’ history in and around the park along with the cultural importance of allowing bison to roam on these lands.

Introducing a 15-20 animal herd on the 150-acre site year-round is no small feat. The health and well-being of the animals as well as the function and stability of the prairie ecosystem is essential to the project’s success. Dakota County and the WSB Team have been working closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who are both aiding in obtaining quality animals from the Minnesota Conservation Herd Partnership and providing insight on the operations and management of their two bison ranges at Minneopa State Park and Blue Mounds State Park. WSB has brought in a team of consultants which include a nationally recognized animal behavior scientist, bison and range management experts, grazing lands conservationist, a local bison rancher, architectural services, and electrical design. WSB is providing landscape architecture, natural resources, trail planning, utility design, and water resources services.

Following the selection of a preferred option from the schematic design effort, our team was retained to develop construction plans and specifications for two separate construction packages to construct the necessary range infrastructure as well as park improvements associated with this project. Long-range plans include outdoor learning areas, a visitor center, parking and trail improvements to enable the public to learn about the bison and the history of the Mississippi River corridor.

The project is being constructed in two phases, with phase 1 being constructed in summer/fall of 2021 and phase 2 in spring/summer of 2022. Plans are for the herd to be on site by fall 2022.

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