The bison looked surprisingly gentle and inquisitive. Or maybe that was just the effect of the big black eyes. They had raised their wooly heads from grazing and stared at us, vaguely curious about the people who had suddenly appeared in the prairie grass.
In a field less than a mile south of Interstate 94, a small herd of bison conjures up what the St. Croix Valley looked like 150 years ago, before towns and farms pushed the bison west and ultimately erased them from the landscape.
Don't be fooled. It took a lot of human effort to create this natural-looking scene.
Just more than a decade ago, the field was corn and soybeans. The bison arrived by truck in 2008, brought by the Belwin Conservancy as an experiment to see if the
Recognizing the outreach and education potential, Belwin built a 20-foot observation tower near the dirt parking lot so anyone could see the bison for free. That proved popular, so two years ago, the conservation organization started offering "bison safaris" as a perk for members who join at the $100 level.
My daughter and I tagged along on a tour on a sweltering day in early July. We bounced along in Belwin's custom "bison buggy," an extra-long tractor mower topped with a pontoon canopy.
Seated next to us in the shade on padded benches were Tamara and Larry Morrissey and their three children, who live in nearby Lakeland Township. They had seen the bison from the road many times
The name "bison" is the scientific Latin name for the American buffalo. Whatever you call them, they once ranged across the continent in herds numbering fewer than a dozen head to more than 10,000. According to one estimate, 32 million lived on the Great Plains, including southern Minnesota.
By the late 19th century, they had been hunted to near extinction, and it's estimated perhaps only 2,000 survived. The prairie disappeared along with them. Today, only 1 percent of the nation's original grasslands remain.
Belwin is trying to restore a bit of that original habitat -- including prairie and oak savannah -- on nearly 1,400 acres it has slowly accumulated south of I-94, mostly along Stagecoach Trail. Bison have become integral to the effort.
We climbed into the bison buggy just off Division Street on the northwest corner of the 150-acre fenced field where the 28 bison graze. Their brown backs were just visible in the far southeast corner, where they like to hang out.
"Back in 2000, this was all in agriculture, mostly corn and soybeans," Anderson said. "We're trying to put it back into tall grass prairie. And it's coming along beautifully. All these flowers you see are native flowers that would have been growing here 100 years ago. It's really an ancient habitat."
The field used to be part of a dairy farm owned by Randall "Bud" Nelson, who sold the land to Belwin rather than see houses built on it and who still lives next door on the farmstead. Belwin seeded the land in native prairie and regularly burns to mimic natural cycles, but restoring a prairie isn't something that happens quickly. Some would say never.
The bison, which are owned by NorthStar Bison in Rice Lake, Wis., have helped things along by churning up soil with their hooves, fertilizing with their dung and urine and, most important, eating the grasses, which shade and crowd out the flowers.
"I was nervous at first about how this was going to all play out," said Tara Kelly, Belwin's director of ecological restoration. The only other bison in Minnesota being used to manage a prairie are at Blue Mounds State Park, which keeps a herd of about 100.
Five years into the
"The bison have helped bring balance back," Kelly said. "They're keeping the grass at bay and keeping it from getting too 'bossy.' They're the last piece of the ecological puzzle."
LOOK AND SMELL
We spent an hour chasing the herd in slow motion around the corner of the field. Anderson would drive to within 15 feet and we'd watch them amble away. After a few minutes, she would rev up the buggy and get close again.
I couldn't stop staring. The bison's silhouette was familiar from pictures. But their small rumps seemed mismatched with their massive shoulders and hump, which Anderson told us evolved in part to balance the weight of their heads. Some of the bison were still shedding shaggy winter coats, and matted clumps of dark-brown hair circled their shoulders like ratty fur stoles.
Anderson rummaged in a Rubbermaid tub and pulled out a wad of buffalo hair that she had picked off the ground. It was spongy, like felted wool, and smelled like the prairie. On another pause, she showed us a bison's lower jawbone.
"That's huge!" my daughter said.
Later, Anderson passed around a rib.
"If you've ever ordered barbecued bison ribs, you wouldn't need a rack," quipped Tamara Morrissey. "You'd need two. Maybe one rib would be plenty."
Finally, Anderson passed around a Ziploc bag containing a buffalo chip. Yup, dried bison dung. It looked like a flaky, brown Frisbee. My daughter cautiously sniffed the bag. It smelled sweet, like the hair.
"I have tried to start a fire with this, but I have yet to be successful," said Anderson, noting that dried dung was an important fuel for native tribes and settlers. "That's one of my goals this year -- to get a fired started." This sparked a lively conversation on the best way to light dried poop, with references to television survival shows.
On the drive back to the parking lot, Anderson pointed out a Henslow's sparrow, chirping on a stem of grass. The tiny bird has declined as its grassland habitats have been wiped out, so the Belwin people are excited about its appearance here.
In the end, it's the ecosystem of prairie birds and insects and plants that Belwin is trying to restore, not the bison per se.
About a half million buffalo are alive today in the United States and Canada, mostly in private hands, such as the ones raised for meat by NorthStar, which has about 600 exclusively grass-fed animals. Interestingly, the family business got its start nearly 20 years ago with two bison purchased at auction from Blue Mounds State Park.
NorthStar brings about 24 bison to Belwin every June and grazes them free of charge into fall. The animals at Belwin now are 2-year-old females. By next summer, they will be steaks, ribs, roasts, bison burgers, bison brats and buffalo dogs, for sale on the farm's website and at a few local co-ops and restaurants, including Good Earth, which sells the bison burgers.
We could have driven a few miles south on Stagecoach Trail into Afton and ordered a NorthStar bison New York strip steak at the Sail Away Cafe. We stopped at Selma's Ice Cream Parlor instead.
"We wanted to demonstrate that land can be in conservation and still be economically viable," Kelly said. "We thought we could test this idea of raising bison on prairie and hope others pick it up."
Anderson has more of an emotional relationship with the bison. In the spring and fall, she works with third- and fifth-grade students enrolled in St. Paul Public Schools who come through Belwin on environmental education field trips. By the time school lets out for summer, the prairie grasses are tall and the bison return. She looks forward to it every year.
"It feels so different when they're here," she said. "It feels whole, complete, like this lost piece of the prairie has returned."
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Bison safari
Where: Belwin Conservancy, near Division Street and Stagecoach Trail, Afton
Information: 651-436-5189 or belwin.org
Hours: By appointment
Cost: $100 annual membership (platform viewing is free)
Target audience: Anyone with an interest in conservation or history
Crowd pleaser: Coming face-to-face with an American icon
Tip: Belwin's Bison Observation Platform is free and open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (gates automatically lock at 7 p.m.) June through bison's departure in September or October. The bison roam throughout the 150-acre field, so bring binoculars. A smaller herd of seven bison can be spotted from the road in a separate field just southeast of the intersection of Hudson Road and Stagecoach Trail.
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