By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When our ancestors first came to this land, it’s estimated that between 30 and 60 million bison were roaming North America.

As settlers established territory, bison were killed off and they nearly became extinct. But there’s now an effort by the DNR and others to bring the animals back.

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Minnesota State Park is its own winter wonderland. You can find evidence of wildlife everywhere in its serene surroundings. A pair of cascading waterfalls are the only interruptions to the January quiet.

“People see that upper waterfall and they say ‘cool’. They come around the corner and they see the lower one and they say, ‘wow that is just awesome’,” said Scott Kudelka, a naturalist with the DNR.

Kudelka remembers a time when the waterfalls were the park’s main attraction. But in September that changed, when new residents arrived – Minneopa bison.

“It’s just been overwhelming. We expected that they would draw people and heard people were excited to see them. But nowhere near what we are seeing today,” Kudelka said.

The 11 Minneopa bison are genetically pure. Of the 500,000 American bison that exist today, about 95 percent have been genetically crossed with cattle DNA, and are managed for meat.

Pure bison are throwbacks to the Old West, and their return to this area is a homecoming 150 years in the making.

“The idea that they have survived this far and still be 100 percent bison, I think is so amazing,” Kudelka said.

Three of the bison came from the Minnesota Zoo. The other eight came from a larger herd at Blue Mounds State Park. But what makes the Minneopa experience different than Blue Mounds, is that people can drive through the range- much like they can at Yellowstone.

“I was kind of interested in seeing them. I thought it was pretty cool that they would bring them in,” said visitor Terry Gappa.

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Since the range became open to the public, there’s been a stampede of sorts to see the animals. Attendance at Minneopa has gone up about 300 percent.

Three of the females are pregnant, and the hope is that the herd will grow to 30 or 40 bison over time.

As visitors come and go, cattle grates keep the bison from leaving. But as long as there’s prairie grass, there’s no reason to leave.

“Their heads are like snow plows. They are pushing away the snow to find grass,” said Alex Watson of the DNR.

While the DNR wants people to enjoy the herd, they also want them to be cautious. Like their ancestors before them, these animals are wild. They can weigh up to a ton and they can run up to 35 miles an hour.

“They really do not think you are a threat. Even a playful nod of the head can be a serious injury. So we just people stay in their vehicle,” Watson said.

It’s also the easiest way to find the herd. Despite their impressive size, they don’t stay in one place for very long.

“Even people that have seen them once are bringing their families back and are showing them off. I think we are going to become that destination place to go and see a bison,” Kudelka said.

The DNR is hoping to eventually grow pure bison numbers at other state parks as well. They would like to see their numbers reach 500 in Minnesota.

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The price to see the bison is $5 a day, and a yearly permit costs $25.

John Lauritsen