June 13, 2018 11:00 PM
At one time, there were millions of bison in the Upper Midwest.
But by the middle of the 1800s, thanks to the expansion of settlers and hunting, the bison were almost gone.
Now, though, an ambitious experiment has started to bring bison back and save what's left of the vanishing prairie in central Minnesota.
On Wednesday, they roared back into their new home at the University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel off two trailers from the North Star Bison Ranch.
"This is amazing, to see them running like that, I'm going to start crying actually" said Caitlin Potter, the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve Education and Outreach Coordinator.
"What an incredible thing to see. This is how oak savannas are supposed to be, and how Minnesota has been. And to just see them out like that on the landscape; it's amazing."
It's emotional because U of M scientists have been working on this project for 18 years.
There are 32 bison. Some of the bulls can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand six feet tall.
The scientists want to find out if these huge animals can help preserve the delicate and disappearing oak savanna ecosystem.
"We've been studying these oak savannas with prescribed fire for 55 years, and that hasn't been able to restore this oak savanna" said Forest Isbell, the Associate Director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.
"And so now we're trying to add bison, another major missing piece of the puzzle, back to these ecosystems."
Isbell said they'll know the experiment is successful if oak seedlings survive and thrive.
"We hope the bison will help the oak trees regenerate in this system by preferentially grazing the grasses that compete with the oak trees, and that provide fuel for the fires that damage the young oak trees," he said.
David Tilman, Cedar Creek's Director, called Wednesday a historic day.
"Henry Sibley, the first Governor of Minnesota, noted in something he wrote in 1832, that the last two bison ever observed east of the Mississippi had just been killed," Tilman said.
"And that means it's been 187 years since there were bison in this area of Minnesota. And now they're back."
The bison will roam more than 200 acres of prairie for the summer, then be brought back again for at least two more summers. The hope is that eventually Cedar Creek will become their year-round home.
The Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve wants the public to come and see the bison. The first opportunity is Saturday. And admission is free
The Minnesota DNR is also working with the Minnesota Zoo and Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota to raise genetically authentic bison.
Updated: June 13, 2018 11:00 PM
Created: June 13, 2018 04:52 PM
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