Before the days of European settlement, millions of bison thrived in the expansive grasslands of North America, roaming freely from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
Since their numbers have declined to about 500,000 today, catching a glimpse of the majestic mammals is no longer an everyday occurrence here in the St. Croix Valley. But during the summer months at Belwin Conservancy near Afton, that’s precisely how often you can take in the sight of bison grazing the landscape. Since 2008, Belwin has hosted a herd annually from June through October, for the purposes of prairie restoration and education.
Belwin Conservancy owns about 1,364 acres of preserved land in Afton, Lakeland and West Lakeland Township. The nonprofit’s mission is to “inspire our connection to the natural world,” executive director Nancy Kafka says, and the organization was founded on this principle in 1970. Through a 45-year partnership with St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS), Belwin has maintained a 225-acre portion of the preserve with an education center especially for SPPS students. The schools provide teachers and curriculum, and Belwin provides the space and land; more than 10,000 students visit each year.
For students and the public alike, Belwin offers the unique opportunity to see bison within the metro area—still in their native habitat. The bison quickly have become a popular attraction of the preserve. “The area really has adopted the bison,” Belwin membership coordinator Ned Phillips says. “I really believe the bison have become a symbol of this community.”
Bringing the animals to Belwin was long talked about before the idea came to fruition. The organization always has been focused on prairie restoration, and bison happen to be highly skilled and efficient prairie managers. After connecting with NorthStar Bison, a family-owned ranch based in Rice Lake, Wis., Belwin hosted its first herd from the ranch on a trial basis in 2008. Each year, NorthStar brings a new herd of 25 to 35 bison to live at Belwin for the summer. While the bison are ultimately destined for the dinner table, they live off the land at Belwin and get everything they need from grazing.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship between the bison and the prairie: The bison aerate the soil with their hooves and spread seeds around with their fur. A thriving prairie is one with a rich variety of life and terrain. “You want to see a mosaic of different species and little micro-ecosystems on the landscape,” Phillips says. “Bison bring that to the prairie just by being bison.”
Bison, unlike cattle and horses, also don’t overgraze. “They don’t nub the grass to just within an inch of its life; they chomp off the top and move on to the next location,” Kafka says. “They really just enhance the prairie.” Belwin aims for its restoration goals to achieve the landscape of pre-European settlement, “so that people can actually experience an environment that was what it was before the mass European influx into the area,” Kafka says.
Visiting the bison at the preserve is a bit like taking a trip back in time or out West. “What we all imagine is bison on the prairie, and that is what you see at Belwin—a tall-grass prairie, bison roaming through it and wildflowers blooming,” Phillips says. “That experience has a wild feel to it.” Each summer, the herd occupies a 150-acre restored prairie near Division Street and Stagecoach Trail in Afton. A 20-foot observation tower and lower platform are free and accessible to the public from dawn until dusk.
Since bison are active animals and move around often, they sometimes venture quite far from the observation area. For visitors wanting to get an up-close experience, Belwin offers rides on its Bison Buggy. The buggy was introduced in 2010 as a way to get out into the prairie and right up next to the animals. “It’s kind of a homemade safari experience,” Kafka says. The custom-built vehicle seats eight comfortably and combines the front end of a commercial mower, the back of a flatbed truck, seats from a school bus and a canopy from a pontoon.
Bison Buggy rides are available to Belwin members during its monthly Open Third Saturdays, during which the preserve offers special free programming and access to the areas usually reserved to SPPS. On these days, members can take a 30-minute ride. Memberships cost an annual contribution of as little as $1. For members who donate more than $500 a year, a private buggy ride with refreshments can be reserved for up to two hours.
The buggy also is used as a shuttle from the parking lot to the observation area during the annual events when NorthStar releases the herd. Kafka has seen the bison-release events grow in popularity each year, with last year’s release drawing more than 1,600 attendees, compared to around 300 the year before. This year’s bison release is set for noon on June 11 and is free and open to the public. Attendees can expect activities, refreshments and the excitement of seeing the bison come charging out of the trucks into their summer home. Parking for the event is at the Lucy Winton Bell lots, a 10-minute walk through the prairie away from the observation area. The bison are released as close to noon as possible, so arriving early is recommended.
While Phillips says the Belwin staff had a feeling the bison would be well-received by the community, they were bowled over by how popular they’ve become, he says. Through the years, he has noticed regulars who like to come check in on the bison throughout the summer. “You’ll see the same people day after day or week after week visiting them,” he says. Kafka also has seen enthusiasm for the animals. “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me about their experiences with bison in the West,” she says. “It’s kind of a romantic animal, you know. It captures people’s imagination.”
(Belwin Conservatory’s Ned Phillips and Nancy Kafka board the Bison Buggy, a custom-built contraption that seats eight and is available to the public for rent, in order to see bison up close on a guided prairie safari. This year’s bison herd will be released at noon June 11.)