Bison Conservation in Minnesota
Early conservation efforts saved the American plains bison from extinction, although more must be done to keep this species healthy for years to come. Once numbering over 20 million across the North American prairie landscape, bison were driven close to extinction in the late 1800s. Small herds were salvaged and protected in reserves such as Yellowstone National Park and at the Bronx Zoo at the turn of the century. Since then, the population has multiplied to safe numbers as a result of bison restoration and protection efforts on public lands and in private herds.
Yet, during the remarkable comeback of North America’s largest land mammal, a silent genetic threat was introduced. Domestic cattle were allowed to interbreed with many of the protected herds, contaminating and changing the character of the bison genome, thereby potentially altering the appearance and adaptability of a species that has existed for thousands of years. It is estimated that less than one percent of the world’s remaining American plains bison are free of cattle hybridization.
The Minnesota Zoo has collaborated with the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to conserve and enhance the American plains bison genome in the state of Minnesota. A joint herd of genetically pure bison is being managed cooperatively at Blue Mounds State Park (BMSP) and at the Minnesota Zoo. Initial genetic testing of the BMSP herd resulted in the selection of female bison that will be bred at both locations. New breeding bulls from conservation herds at the Wichita Mountains National Park and Badlands National Park will be paired with these females. All of the future bison offspring from these genetically pure parents will roam in Minnesota state parks and will give visitors the opportunity to witness American plains bison with the same physical features and behaviors that have ensured their survival over many years of natural selection.