Since Sept. 25, an 11-member herd of genetically rare American bison have been roaming Minnesota’s Minneopa State Park, just south of Minneapolis.
That number may seem small, but every bison counts on a continent where as many as 60 million of the iconic North American animals were hunted to the brink of extinction. Their numbers dwindled down to about 1,000 animals by the late 19th century, according to a statement by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
What makes these bison unique is the fact that they share few if any genes with cattle. Due to cross-breeding with cattle, most of the remaining bison in the United States are smaller than the aboriginal population of bison, which are the largest land animals on the North American continent.
“We are excited about our bison conservation partnership with the DNR,” Minnesota Zoo Director of Animal Collections Tony Fisher said in a statement. “The Minnesota Zoo works on animal conservation projects around the world and we are proud to now be helping a rare species right here in Minnesota.”
The Minneopa herd was drawn from the Minnesota Conservation Bison Herd of about 90 genetically unique animals. The goal is to expand the state’s conservation herd to about 500 members.
The herd includes several pairs of bison cows and their babies, some yearling heifers, and some pregnant females who are expected to give birth this coming spring. Eventually the herd will grow to 30-40 bison.
All but 20,000 of the half-million North American bison alive today share some genes with cattle, the zoo said in its announcement of the herd’s Friday release into Minneopa State Park, near Mankato, Minn., about 85 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
Officials chose the park because it has enough prairie grass to feed a growing herd, a 200,000-strong pool of possible human visitors within a 50-mile radius, and many educational institutions in the vicinity that could team up as research partners with the DNR and the zoo.
People who want a close-up look at the animals can drive through the range on a hard-surfaced road, probably starting in mid-October, according to a DNR statement.
The zoo has been working with the natural resources agency on expanding the state’s bison population since 2012.