LUVERNE - From the cackle of a pheasant rooster and the staccato of Western Meadowlarks to the sight of deer on the run and cinnamon-colored bison calves trailing behind their mothers, a new custom-built Prairie Tour Vehicle (PTV) gives visitors to Blue Mounds State Park an experience like no other in Minnesota’s State Parks and Trails system.
The vehicle is the result of years of discussion, planning and design, and offers its riders an authentic off-road experience and 360-degree view of the vast prairie landscape that is the Blue Mounds bison pasture. While initially called a Bison Buggy during the planning process, Park Naturalist Amber Brooks said the PTV tours are about so much more than the bison.
The bison, though, are definitely the highlight - if in fact they are in viewing proximity of the vehicle on tour days.
Blue Mounds State Park is home to one of the most genetically pure bison herds in the country, and Brooks talks about their near-extinction and the work that went into building up the population as part of the tour. She pulls from her cloth sack a cap from a bison horn, a sampling of bison fur and the vertebrae from a bison’s spine showing the characteristic shoulder hump.
She also talks about prairie ecology, how just 1 percent of Minnesota’s native prairie remains, which mirrors the 1 percent of North American bison that don’t contain cattle genetics.
Depending on the month or even the week, visitors will get to experience new sights on the prairie tour, from the Golden Alexanders currently in bloom to the Big Blue Stem and other colorful prairie flowers that will flourish in July, August and September.
The early season Prairie Smoke is now blooming near Eagle Rock, located a short .2-mile trek from the park’s now unused visitor center, and Brooks said prickly pear cactus should be in bloom within the next couple of weeks.
For visitors with an eye out for wildlife, Brooks said it’s not uncommon to see a variety of bird species, deer, 13-lined ground squirrels (striped gophers), hawks and turkey vultures. Evening or early morning visits to the park may yield coyote sightings as well.
Currently, approximately 100 bison - cows, calves, the 6-year-old herd bull and a 2-year-old bull with Yellowstone genetics - roam the Blue Mounds State Park pasture.
The Prairie Tour Vehicle makes it possible for Blue Mounds State Park to add to its educational programming, and Brooks said education is her primary goal.
“Any time we have naturalist programs, DNR has a philosophy that we want to teach and inspire - inspire conservation, inspire people to get outside and to appreciate the outdoors,” she said. “The town of Luverne did so much work to try to get a naturalist into this area. It’s just been such a fantastic opportunity.”
Brooks became the park’s first naturalist nearly a year ago. A native of the Twin Cities, she earned a degree in wildlife biology and was known as the Bison Lady long before she took the job in the far southwest corner of the state.
Her interest in bison stems from a vacation she took to Custer State Park with her family nearly a decade ago. While at the park, she was so inspired by the sight of wild bison that she chose to change her career plans three years into a journalism and mass communications degree.
She actually returned to Custer State Park to work with the bison before joining the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Now, as the sole tour guide and driver of the Prairie Tour Vehicle, Brooks grins when she says she’s found her dream job.
“I get asked constantly, ‘Why bison?’ and I say, ‘Have you looked at one?’ I mean, why not? They’re mystical and magical - they’re just amazing.”
For the first two weekends in June, same-day tickets for the park’s 1.5-hour prairie and bison tour will be offered at the park office. The goal is to begin taking online reservations on the Blue Mounds State Park page of the Minnesota DNR website (http://bit.ly/2smyylf) starting June 15.
The 12-passenger, handicap-accessible PVT was built with safety in mind. The one-of-a-kind truck was built by Crysteel with a Ford F-350 chassis. Passengers are required to wear seatbelts (children ages 4-8 must be in a booster) and safety glasses unless they have prescription or sunglasses. Steel panels line the sides so that there is no contact between the bison and passengers, though Brooks said it is unlikely the bison will get too close to the vehicle.
Prairie and bison tours are offered three times a day, Friday through Sunday, from now through Labor Day. Tours are at 1, 3 and 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 10 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Sundays, with tours at 10 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. on July 4 and Labor Day. Ticket prices range from $6 for youths ages 4-12; and $10 for those 13 and older. Children under 4 are not permitted on the vehicle.
Brooks plans to offer private tours after Labor Day for small groups and school students.
Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, with proceeds of Minnesota Lottery sales, paid for the Prairie Tour Vehicle.
“So even if you lose at the lottery, the environment wins,” Brooks quipped.
Her position is funded from July 2018 through 2020 by the state’s Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment.