See more of the story

When President Barack Obama designated the American bison as the national mammal in 2016, it capped a stunning comeback for an animal that once dominated the frontier but was nearly driven to extinction.

Centuries before settlers migrated west, bison freely roamed the interior, from the mountains of Idaho to the woodlands of New York, in numbers surpassing 30 million. Rampant hunting left fewer than 1,000 in the United States in the 1880s.

Ed Mathwig wondered about the animal's history in Minnesota. The 74-year-old from Rochester turned to Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting initiative fueled by reader questions, to ask: Where were bison found in Minnesota and when did they disappear?

Buffalo are a different animal indigenous to South Asia and Africa. Bison, with their shaggy manes and broad heads, are native to North America.

The recorded history of bison in Minnesota began when 17th-century missionary Father Louis Hennepin and a group of Native Americans found the animals along the Mississippi River, according to Evadene Swanson's "The Use and Conservation of Minnesota Wildlife, 1850-1900." Those animals were American Plains bison, one of two species of American bison, along with the wood bison.

Bison herds were found in all parts of the state except the northeastern Arrowhead. The majority roamed the Red River Valley into southern Minnesota, said Scott Kudelka, a naturalist at Minneopa State Park.

The last wild bison in Minnesota were reportedly seen in Norman County in 1880, around the time they nearly went extinct in the United States, according to Swanson.

Unbridled hunting played a primary role in the devastation of the bison population, which plummeted in the 19th century until President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist William Hornaday formed the American Bison Society in 1905 to rescue the species.

Blue Mounds State Park spearheaded Minnesota's first bison conservation efforts in 1961. It now is home to about 80 bison. The park manages part of the Minnesota Conservation Herd, along with the Minnesota Zoo and Minneopa State Park. The three sites maintain a combined herd of nearly 130 bison. Diana Weinhardt, a curator at the Minnesota Zoo, oversees a program with the state Department of Natural Resources that releases bison born at the zoo into Minneopa and Blue Mounds state parks. Because domestic cattle have long been bred with bison to produce leaner, more resilient "beefalo," she conducts genetic testing to ensure the bison don't carry cattle genes before their release.

The 532 acres at Blue Mounds is home to a genetically pure herd of bison. Once home to more than 18 million acres of prairie, Minnesota has just over 1% of its native prairie left, according to the DNR.

Estimating the size of Minnesota's total bison population is a challenge, because farms raising bison for meat don't have to disclose herd size, Kudelka said.

Henry Erlandson • 612-673-4789