A herd of bison stampeded onto the prairie during Belwin Conservancy's bison release Saturday, May 20. The annual event is in its ninth year and has gained popularity over time according to Belwin's executive director, Nancy Kafka.

"Around 250 people came the first year," she said. "Last year we were over 1,000."

Kafka said one of the main draws to the event is its length. Being such a short event, people can stop by and see the bison get released and then come back later to see them again when the weather is optimal.

"Last year it was really hot, we were actually concerned with people getting heat stroke," Kafka said. For those who braved the cold and wet conditions this year, a little bit of heat would have been a nice reprieve.

This year Belwin received 40 bison from NorthStar Bison in Rice Lake, Wis. Kafka said the 2-year-old males average around 900 pounds, but can live to be 20-22 years old, weigh up to 2,000 pounds and grow up to 6-feet tall.

"We bring the bison in as an educational tool," Kafka said. "The idea is to put the animals that were historically present in the prairie back into it."

How the bison have impacted the prairie has been nothing short of impressive.

"Bison are the best grazers and the best for the soil," said Mary Graese of NorthStar Bison.

"They do a better job managing the valley than we do," Kafka added. "Their feet actually aerate the soil."

Throughout the years, Belwin has noticed that the bison have kept weeds and invasives in check. The bison release was bumped up to May this year, rather than its usual June date, to see if they could get ahead of the weeds.

Natural partners

Knowing that the bison would rely on the 120-acre prairie for food, the present partnership was formed. NorthStar was one of the local ranches that could provide Belwin with 100 percent grass-fed bison.

"We just give them water," Kafka said. "They feed on the prairie."

Belwin also transfers only one sex of the species each year. Graese said the primary reason for this is to negate any potential procreation at the bison's summer home.

"Our relationship with Belwin is really the heartbeat of NorthStar and what bison, as a species, is all about: restoration and regeneration. Restoring healthy ecosystems, healthy people and, ultimately, a healthy, thriving species. When you have that, everyone wins," Sean Graese of NorthStar said in a press release.

Mary Graese said working with Belwin has raised the idea of partnering with other conservatories like Belwin. With 2,000 bison back in Rice Lake, there are certainly the numbers to support that.

"Appreciation for the animal is really growing," she said. "Last year bison were voted to be the national mammal."

It is a sentiment that resonates with the public as well.

"I'd rather see a buffalo in its natural setting than in a zoo," Newport resident Mike Laughton said.

The bison will stay at Belwin Conservancy through September, with the viewing platform and the walk to the tall viewing tower open all summer.