University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
College of Biological Sciences

Bison and Savanna Research

An update from Forest Isbell (associate director) and Caitlin Potter (education and outreach coordinator)

As many of you may have heard, Cedar Creek is starting up a new project in 2018 which will bring bison to our oak savannas. This exciting opportunity is Classic oak savannafunded by Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which helps maintain, restore and enhance Minnesota’s environment and natural resources. Here we briefly describe the project and answer a few frequently asked questions. If you have additional questions, please feel free to contact Forest Isbell via email ( ), attend our next question and answer session on Saturday, May 19th at 1pm, or attend other public events throughout the summer.

Oak savanna is Minnesota’s most threatened ecosystem, and scientists at Cedar Creek have been investigating how to preserve, restore and maintain this unique environment since the 1960s. Specifically, we have been examining the role of fire on these landscapes. We’ve found that burning about 4 to 7 times per decade eliminates shrubs and non-savanna tree species and restores prairie grassland species, but that these frequent and intense fires also prevent oaks from regenerating. Our savanna research has partially restored the second largest stand of oak savanna in Minnesota, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that fire on its own is leading to the slow conversion of the savanna into a grassland. When you walk along the public nature trail at Fish Lake, you can see this result with your own eyes – in the most “savanna-like” areas, there are few small- and medium-sized oak trees, only mature adults.

Why bison?

Bison may help support the regeneration of oak trees. Bison are known from other research to be important for restoring grasslands, but little is known about their role in savanna ecosystems. In grasslands, bison promote plant coexistence and diversity by preferentially grazing the grasses that otherwise dominate the landscape. In our new experiment, we hope to find out if this same preferential grazing will take place in the savanna. Grasses are the primary fuel for fires in the savanna, and also compete with oak seedlings for light and resources. If bison preferentially eat these grasses, it could help young oaks in two ways – by reducing both the intensity of fires and the abundance of competitors. Our research has the potential to uncover an effective new strategy for restoring and maintaining a unique and vanishing Midwest ecosystem.

Bison at Belwin Conservatory in Afton MNThis research will also provide an opportunity for Minnesotans to look into the past, to a time when both bison and savannas were common in our state. We will offer multiple opportunities during the spring and summer for visitors to come learn about the research, meet the lead scientists, and view the bison. This research and the bison themselves will also be the focus of new field trip opportunities for local school groups. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating this new research project!

Frequently Asked Questions

How many bison will there be? Initially, we will have no more than 40 bison to ensure that there will be more than 5 acres of land available for each bison.

Will the bison be here year-round? The bison will be at Cedar Creek during the growing season, from approximately early June through September.

Where do the bison come from? The bison herd is being provided by NorthStar Bison in western Wisconsin, who also provides bison to Belwin Conservancy in Afton.

Will I be able to see the bison or will they be off limits to the public? There will be regularly scheduled opportunities for visitors to come see the bison and learn about the project. We will also host a Q+A opportunity on Saturday, May 19th at 1pm, before the bison arrive for the season. Keep an eye on Cedar Creek’s website and facebook page for more details!

Will I still be able to hike and ski on the Fish Lake Nature Trail? There will be no change in access to the Fish Lake hiking trail, which will remain open year-round and which is outside the bison enclosure. Similarly, there will be no change in access to the ski trails, which will remain open when there is snow on the ground (note that bison will not be present on the property when there is snow). As always, please remember that no dogs are allowed on the trails and that you must stick to the marked trails and roads to avoid damaging research projects.

I'm excited! How can I learn more about bison? We hope you'll attend a public event at Cedar Creek this summer, and come see our bison herd and our research project in person! In the meantime, we recommend the National Parks Service series "Bison Bellows". This 52-week set of short articles from 2015 and 2016 covers bison ecology and history, celebrates the heros of bison conservation, and shares information about the 17 bison herds managed by the federal government. Check it out!