A herd of bison now grazes on the native plants of a prairie restoration project in Spring Lake Park Reserve, leaving hoof prints on land where the species hasn’t existed in the wild since the mid-1800s. AGATE’s Laurie Allmann spoke with Dakota County Natural Resources Manager Tom Lewanski, who played a key role in the effort to make it happen.
AGATE: How did the idea for this project begin? Had it been a personal goal of yours?
Lewanski: I’ve been involved in prairie restoration projects for over 25 years now, and in learning about prairie ecology and the natural history of the prairie, it’s clear that grazing is such an important part of that whole system. Prior to working for Dakota County, I was with Friends of the Mississippi, which does prairie restoration projects with landowners but doesn’t own any land. We’d put 50 or 60 plant species into a restoration and do periodic burning. It was always in the back of my mind that the piece that really was missing was the grazing, but we never had the opportunity to really pursue that.
So, fast forward to about 4 ½ years ago. In my current position with Dakota County, we had been talking professionally both within and outside the organization about that grazing piece for the prairie in the County’s parks—some people use cattle. I was giving a presentation at the School of Environmental Studies (a high school affiliated with the Minnesota Zoo) where I used bison as an example of a keystone species. A keystone species is one that has a very large, even disproportionate impact on or in its habitat. If it is removed, the system does not function properly. Bison is one. Beaver is another.
In the audience at the presentation was one of the Dakota County Commissioners, Commissioner Atkins. The next morning, he called me. He said, Tom, I’ve been meaning to call you. He’d had a conversation with the Executive Director of the Minnesota Zoo, who wished there was a place locally where bison could be out on a prairie in a more natural setting, as opposed to a zoo, a display. The Commissioner asked; would we ever consider trying to bring bison to one of our parks? So that phone call allowed me, in an official way, to pursue this idea. I was excited, but told him I’d need to look into it and have some discussions and would get back to him.
AGATE: What happened next? What was the process?
Lewanski: I was directed by the County Board to write a white paper on it, just a brief 5 or 6 pages on the pros and cons. I presented that to the Board and they said, well, do a feasibility study on it, which we did internally. As a part of that, we looked at each of the county’s parks. It was wonderful because I had reached out to Ed Quinn, who is one of the leaders in the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd partnership, to get some basic information, and he offered to come out and look at the parks with us: to help us evaluate which ones might be appropriate to bring bison in. So, we spent a couple of days out in the field with him and we really came up with three parks that would work: Whitetail Woods, Miesville Ravine Park Reserve and Spring Lake Park. All of this was put together with the feasibility study and presented to the County Board. Based on that, they directed me to do a number of things: to apply for some external funding, and to either join or come up with an agreement with the MN Bison Conservation Herd partnership. We applied and were awarded $560,000 from the MN Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund in 2021. That was huge, because that took care of much of the infrastructure we needed. And the MN Bison Conservation Herd, which is made up of the MN DNR, the MN Zoo, Olmstead County, welcomed us into the partnership. So all of these pieces started to fall into place. Interesting, although there was some initial hesitancy by a few, there was very little pushback to the idea.
AGATE: How did you settle on Spring Lake Park Reserve as the site?
Lewanski: Some of the other staff of the natural resources program and I went out and visited a number of bison herd practitioners, including Belwin Conservancy, the Prairie Island Indian Community, Minneola State park and Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. We heard, if you’re going to have bison, people are going to want to see them, and so you need to make sure that you plan for that. And so, we landed on Spring Lake Park, where we had 150 acres of prairie, along with parking, restrooms, water: all those things that park visitors would need. At the time, we happened to be updating the Master Plan for the Spring Lake Park Reserve, and there was a series of public meetings. I attended all of those meetings and gave a short presentation on the bison project and asked people what they thought. Something like 90-95% of the people who filled out a short questionnaire thought it was a great idea. For the most part, people were very excited about it, which was great, since the County Board is always interested to have citizens weigh in on large projects. So all these stars were lining up: we got this external funding, people in Dakota County were really supporting it, we had a place for the bison to be and the infrastructure that would be needed for people who wanted to see them.
AGATE: Any notable obstacles or challenges?
Lewanski: Well, one of the early challenges we faced is that the Mississippi River Greenway trail winds its way right through the prairie at Spring Lake. We worked with Robert Slipka from the consulting firm WSB, who helped us think about how to deal with that, and came up with a system of paddocks. I had initially thought it would be better for them to be able to roam on one continuous range. I think ultimately, this system is probably going to be better, because it allows us to have more flexibility in managing the bison. By that, I mean if we see that their grazing is having too much of an impact, or not enough impact in a particular area, we can either move them or confine them for a period of time as needed. So I think in the long run that will probably serve the prairie better.
WSB was also helpful in other choices along the way, including the design of the handling facility. They put together such an impressive team to advise us that included a professor from the University of North Dakota who was a range management specialist, a private bison rancher, a few other people who were in the know on management of bison. Among the team was Temple Grandin. It was an honor to meet her and get her input into this.
AGATE: Tell me more about Temple Grandin.
Lewanski: Dr. Temple Grandin is a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University: an animal behaviorist and a global leader in designing more humane livestock handling facilities. Many facilities around the world are now based on her research and expertise. We were thrilled to have her look at our project through that humane lens. First and foremost, for the the natural resource program, we want to be sure that the bison are safe and healthy. Her involvement helped to ensure that that’s going to happen.
AGATE: So, after all this preparation, when did bison arrive on the site? How did it go?
Lewanski: It was the first week of October, 2022. The initial herd is eight bison, all female. We have two cow-calf pairs, and two 2-year olds, and two 1-year olds. Some came from Blue Mounds State Park, some from Minneopa State Park, and one 1-year old female from Zollman Zoo near Rochester. Each fall the state parks do their bison management day, where if they need to cull the herd, that’s when they do it. Many times they auction them off but in this case we were able to get some of those to start our herd.
For the first month they stayed in a relatively small handling pen, about an acre, acre and a half. This not only let them take a look around and get to know their new home, but also—because they’re coming from three different places—sort of forced them to get to know each other as opposed to being out on 20 acres where they could have stayed off by themselves.
AGATE: What happened when you first opened the gate of the handling pen, and they could access a larger area?
Lewanski: (Laughing) Nothing! It probably took them 6 to 8 hours before they decided they would venture out into the prairie.
AGATE: And what have you been observing since then?
Lewanski: It’s been interesting watching them. They’ve formed a pretty tight-knit herd. It’s a female-led system, so there is a lead cow, and she definitely is the lead out there, and the other ones seem to have fallen into their place. They move as a herd out into the prairie and back into the handling facility. That said, they like to chum around with bison of their own age. You have these two cow-calf pairs, they kind of form the nucleus, and then just on the outside of that you have these two 2-year olds, and then just on the outside of that you have these two 1-year olds. They’re a herd, but they’re not packed together, and they move around like that. It’s been fun watching the dynamic. We have a dedicated bison technician, Carleigh Dueck, and other staff who look out for them, and I try to get my eyes on them at least once a week. They are definitely moving around in the prairie, but still seem to choose to spend the night in the smaller pen, which is fine.
AGATE: One of the speakers at a scheduled public welcome event was from the Prairie Island Tribal Community. What role have local tribal members or communities had in this project?
Lewanski: As a part of updating the Spring Lake Park master plan, we engaged some Tribal Historic Preservation Officers to come out and look over the park. There are some incredible culturally significant areas within this park and we wanted to be sure that we honored these and would do nothing to damage them. We wanted to understand where they were so we didn’t impact them when it comes time to developing park visitor amenities. The bison were discussed as part of this process, and the tribal officers who weighed in on the project seemed to be very supportive of reintroducing bison to the park.
Since the bison have arrived, we’ve held two events around the bison project, to which we invited members from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Prairie Island Indian Community. They sent representatives to both of these events, who had wonderful words to offer. And prior to one of these events, we received an invitation from the elected officials at the Prairie Island Indian community to come down to see their herd. A bunch of us went down there to tour their facility, which was a great experience. While we were there, they said it was the start of us working together. So, I’m excited to see how that manifests itself.
There was also a more intimate welcoming ceremony at the Spring Lake Park site that was separate from the organized, scheduled events. As we were approaching the time when the bison were going to be here, we had let it be known to the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers we were working with and others in the local tribal communities that if any first people wanted to come out and welcome the bison, we would love to help that take place. Initially, we hadn’t heard a reply. But one Saturday morning, I got a call at home from our Spring Lake Park staff member, Autumn, who was leading a listening session for local Indigenous people around the master plan update. She said that there were a few gentlemen there from Prairie Island who were asking to go over and do a welcoming ceremony for the bison, could I make that work? I said, give me ten minutes, I’ll be there. I met them, and we went into the handling facility. I offered to hang back, and they could take as much time as they wished. And they said, no, we want you to come and be a part of this. As part of the short ceremony, they sang, offered tobacco, and spoke of the relationship they’ve had for thousands of years with the bison.
Normally when we go into the handling facility, the bison are way down at the other end, and will move even further away from us when we enter. But in this case I noticed they stayed right up close, just on the other side of the nearest gate. It was only when the men from Prairie Island left, while a couple of us staff were still there, that the bison turned and moved off, going down to the far end.
To me, this was the bison’s formal welcoming. It was an honor to be part of it.
AGATE: What’s next?
Lewanski: Over time, we aim to grow the herd, looking at a maximum of 15, and to include breeding-age males. And the bison is a wonderful animal but it is not the only one we’re going to be reintroducing at the site. The next project is to try to reintroduce the Regal Fritillary, which used to be one of the most common butterflies on the prairie, big and beautiful. But now, with less than one percent of native prairie remaining in the state, it’s a rare species. Their young are pretty much tied to birds’ foot violet, it’s the only thing they can eat. So we’ve identified remnants in the area, we’ve gathered a bunch of seed, we’re growing it into plugs, we’ll install the plugs, and hopefully in three, four, or five years the population of violets will be high enough that we can go about reintroducing this Regal Fritillary. We’re also looking at bull snakes and other species we’re not currently finding in the park.
Restoration of the prairie is an ongoing process. I mean, historically this land was prairie grading to oak savanna, and then as you got closer to the river, there was more of a northern aspect, and you’d get some forest. Then, it was converted to agricultural uses: farmed, although I don’t know how much success they had, since it was pretty sandy, part of the Mississippi terraces. So, if you think about an acre of native prairie having as many as 500 species of plants on it, thousands of species of animals, I’d hate to call one of these acres restored. It is a process because we’re constantly trying to build the diversity of plants there, and where possible, bring in some of the animals that used to be but no longer are. So that will continue.
AGATE: As you look ahead to the future, how will you define success for the bison project?
Lewanski: I’m not sure that I would put it in those terms. The project is a success to me now, in the fact that the bison have been reintroduced to a piece of land that historically they were on: not for the purpose of an educational display, but for the purpose of knitting together this natural community, knowing that bison are such an important element. What is going to be fun and interesting is to see the impact to the prairie ecosystem out there. It will be what it will be. I don’t look at it in terms of a certain type of impact would mean that it would be a success, and if they don’t have that impact it will be a failure. It will just be learning how they do impact the prairie and how we document that. Will we see more species of bumblebees and other insects? Will there be changes in populations of breeding birds? We did a lot of pre-treatment surveys: breeding birds, plants, bumblebees, small mammals, reptiles, so we have a pretty good sense of what’s out there which will allow us to track over time what sort of impact on this natural community these bison are having, if any. I know theoretically what should happen, but having this large dataset will allow us to track those impacts over time.
Another way to look at it would be, it will be a success when we share with park visitors not only about the ecology of prairie that includes the bison, but also how close the relationship between the Indigenous people and the bison was historically and continues to be for people living in this community. If we can be a part of more people gaining that perspective, I’d call that success, too.
Tom Lewanski led the initial concept and design phases of the bison reintroduction project and helped secure state funding. He was the stakeholder liaison as the project took shape and continues to lead the vision for the future of the Spring Lake Park Reserve Bison Prairie.
Tom has served as Dakota County’s Natural Resources Manager since fall of 2017. He received his bachelor’s degree in outdoor education from Northland College, and completed his master’s and doctorate degrees in public administration at Hamline University. His work experience includes 30 years in the conservation field, during which he has been involved in protecting and restoring many natural areas in the Twin Cities.
Follow the progress of this evolving project on Dakota County’s Spring Lake Park Reserve Bison Prairie web page.