- Associated Press - Monday, April 10, 2017

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - Visitor curiosity hasn’t diminished at Minneopa State Park since a herd of bison was introduced in fall 2015.

If anything, interest in the animals has grown, prompting park staff to seek the help of volunteers to keep up with the droves of new visitors, the Mankato Free Press (https://bit.ly/2o4mxim ) reported.

To meet the demand, the Department of Natural Resources started offering “bison ambassador” training last year.

The training teach volunteers basic facts about the sizable beasts who roam the park, from how long they’ve been at Minneopa to where onlookers might see them on a given day. The park had about 10 ambassadors already, but enough interested parties came to a training session recently to potentially double that number.

Scott Kudelka, Minneopa area naturalist, said the park certainly needs the help.



“We’ve gone from a middle of the road park for visitation to a top 10,” he said of the effect the bison have had at Minneopa.

Thankfully, he said there’s been no shortage of people hoping to get involved at the bison range.

“We want some connection with the public, and there’s been so much interest for people who want to have something to do with the bison,” he said.

Warren Michels, of St. Peter, said he’s always been intrigued by the herd. A retiree, he said the training sounded like a good way to learn more about the animals while helping out at the park.

Fellow trainee Melissa Alexander of North Mankato said she came for much the same reasons.

“My kids are older now so I have to find other things to do besides chase them around,” she said. “I like being outside, and for whatever reason I find the bison fascinating.”

The ambassadors will mainly be stationed at the Seppman Mill overlook on weekends, where they can answer questions and set up a spotting scope so the public can more easily see the herd.

Tim Pulis, secretary of the Friends of Minneopa State Park group, has been a volunteer bison ambassador since the herd came to the park. While the new recruits trained, he headed up to Seppman to demonstrate the duties of a park ambassador.

He zoomed in the spotting scope on three bison lounging in the sun for a family who’d just walked up.

Matt Tofte, of Mankato, picked up his son, Lennox, 3, then his daughter, Alexa, 8, to give them a look. Both children remarked with surprise how big the bison looked.

Tofte and wife, Erin, thanked Pulis for his help.

“I think it definitely helps out to have them on hand,” he said of the volunteers. “It gives you an up close look you wouldn’t get.”

Pulis said interactions like this are common on nice weekend days at the park.

“In a two-hour span last summer I probably would have up to 100 people come by and ask questions,” he said.

The volunteers aren’t expected to know everything. Kudelka said it’s more important for them to just be there if people need anything.

“If they don’t know they can just take a questions and we can get back to them,” he said.

He said the recent training session should help keep the park staffed with volunteers through the peak visitation months coming up.

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Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com

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