At Play on the Prairie

By Kate Seitz

Belwin’s Annual Bison Release celebrates the connection between bison and prairie with EcoArt Fest and 5K Run

Photo by Sharon Sykora

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On a cool spring day in May, the prairie at Belwin was already in bloom. Not with wildflowers; not yet. The late winter of 2018 meant a delayed start to Minnesota’s spring growth. No, this day, the color popping up was in the form of people walking and running prairie trails, of motorized buggies transporting people to and fro, and children running and playing.

This was the day of the 10th Annual Bison Release at Belwin Conservancy, a celebration of the natural connection between prairies and bison, held every year in the spring. The past several years, it’s been held in May rather than June in order to take earlier advantage of the bison’s natural ability to restore and manage the land.

Photo by Sharon Sykora

Since 2008, in partnership with NorthStar Bison, of Rice Lake, Wis., Belwin has hosted a herd of bison on its northern prairie, off Division Street in Afton, Minn. With each passing year, the Belwin team has learned more from the bison about land management, and has worked to educate the public about the unique relationship between the national mammal and ecosystems.

Susan Haugh, Belwin program director, and Belwin staff planned a host of new activities to enhance this year’s bison release celebration. The first, a 5K “Run with the Bison” Fun Trail Run (in partnership with the Woodbury YMCA), was held prior to the release of the bison onto the prairie.

Photo by Sharon Sykora

Sixty participants, ranging in age from 4 to 77, got the chance to run or walk the area where the bison spend their summer: across rolling prairie land and through lush wooded areas bordering the 120-acre property, finishing on the northern edge of the prairie, at Belwin’s Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields.

The unique setting attracted many of the participants, as did the casual, untimed nature of the run. That didn’t stop people from racing for a personal best time, however. The unofficial winner was a young man wearing a bright orange shirt and big smile.

Photo by Greg Seitz

At the entrance to the festival, several large tents, a stage and the ArtReach St. Croix mobile art gallery greeted attendees. This was the site of Belwin’s EcoArt Fest, which hosted artist-led, interactive arts activities for all ages.

“The EcoArt Fest was designed to help people experience the land through creating ephemeral, or transitory, art,” Haugh said.

There were nature- and bison-inspired activities for everyone including nature storytelling and writing haiku, sponsored by St. Croix 360; examining bison artifacts; pounding dirt into sculpture and then breaking it down, led by ephemeral artist Tom Bierlein; screen printing, leaf decorating, and much more.

Photo by Sharon Sykora

There was live entertainment by The Riddle Brothers, an acoustic Americana/bluegrass band; Impossible Salt, musical storytellers; and Crow Bellecourt and Thomas Butcher Jr., a Native American singing and drumming duo.

Right before the bison release, Impossible Salt led attendees on a quarter-mile walk from the EcoArt Tent to the Bison Observation Area, all the while singing “Home on the Range.”

Once they arrived at the observation area, people quickly spread out along the fence bordering the prairie, and along the walkway to and up to the top of the bison observation platform.

Photo by Kate Seitz

The anticipation built quickly as the release time neared. NorthStar employees drove a large animal trailer onto the prairie and backed it into place, as close to the waiting crowds as possible.

Ojibwe Elder and Water Walker Sharon Day gave a blessing for the animals and the prairie, for the environment, and for the people in attendance.

Once the cue was given from Belwin’s Facilities Manager Justin Sykora, emcee Aimee Witteman, program director of McKnight Foundation’s Midwest Climate & Energy program, led the crowd in counting down from 10 to the time when the bison were released.

With doors flung wide open, and Belwin and NorthStar employees standing clear, the pent up, 700-pound animals charged from their cage and onto their new summer home. The crowd cheered!

A few minutes later, a second trailer repeated the process. The bison ran onto their new home and the crowd went wild.

Professional and amateur photographers alike filled their camera cards; small children jumped up and down with joy until their legs were tired; and people of all ages celebrated the return of this iconic animal to the prairie.

There is color now on the bison prairie as the wildflowers, like butterfly weed, finally begin to bloom. The bison roam, doing work on the land as they did two hundred years ago; work that will continue long past their short summer stay at Belwin. Come and see them here while you can.

Bison Buggy Rides
Belwin members: Enjoy a 30-minute bison buggy ride through their prairie habitat from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month. The last buggy ride departs at 2:30 p.m.

Not a member? Join at any level and enjoy a 30-minute bison buggy ride through their prairie habitat from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month. The last buggy ride departs at 2:30 p.m.

View all upcoming events at Belwin.

Photo by Sharon Sykora