MANKATO, Minn. (WCCO) – In the vast open prairie of Minneopa State Park, a once plentiful animal will soon graze the lush grasses again.

“The bison were driven from around 20 million to fewer than 1,000 animals [in the early] 1900s,” said Tony Fisher, the Minnesota Zoo’s animal collection manager.

Now, over 50 years since native bison were re-established into Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota, a second herd is about to find a new home.

It’s a joint conservation effort between the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Zoo. The effort results in bringing 11 pure strain bison into the park near Mankato.

“We want to give the public the opportunity to see bison, just as Lewis and Clark saw bison back in the 1830s,” Fisher said. “We want the public of Minnesota to see those same kind of bison.”

It took a little coaxing to get the bison from a temporary holding pen where they have been acclimating to the new terrain. Eight of the animals were brought here from Blue Mound State Park; three were culled from the smaller herd at the Minnesota Zoo.

After about a 45-minute wait, with the gate to the prairie wide open, they ran free into the 330-acre fenced prairie.

But what’s different with this herd from the bison at Blue Mound is that visitors will be able to drive through the heard, much like they experience out in Custer State Park in South Dakota and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

“We didn’t have to do a lot to the landscape to provide that opportunity for the visitors,” the DNR’s Kathy Dummer said.

Driving vehicles through the prairie on an existing park trail will give visitors an amazing old west experience – safe, so long as you stay in your car.

“That first person experience is really what takes someone from being a passive bystander to being potentially a steward,” Dummer said.

It’s all an effort to preserve majestic animals of the nation’s past, now saved for all to see.

“Hopefully, this is just the start of something long-term and something much bigger,” Fisher said.

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