The Dakota County Board has voted to spend up to $50,000 on a study to find out whether it’s feasible to return bison to the county through its park system.

“Bringing something like bison back to parks captures people’s imagination,” said Tom Lewanski, the county’s natural resources manager. “It’s a big, iconic animal.”

The idea also intrigues commissioners, said Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins, who raised the subject with the board after hearing Lewanski speak about ecosystems at a Dakota County parks event last summer.

“For me, I was just thinking it’d be cool,” Atkins said, adding that only later did he learn about how the animals could dramatically improve the land.

Dakota County once consisted of more than 300,000 acres of prairie and savanna, upon which thousands of bison likely grazed. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of that area remains.

If brought back to the county, the species has the potential to benefit the land and parkgoers alike. Bison are considered a keystone species, which means their effect on their environment is disproportionately large relative to their abundance, according to a Dakota County research paper.

Bison were the main grazers on the prairies and plains, eating grass while leaving forbs — herbaceous flowering plants — undisturbed and growing. Forbs provide seeds for animals along with nectar and pollen for insects.

Dakota County’s 2017 natural resources plan emphasizes restoring native habitats, Lewanski said. Adding bison to the parks would improve biodiversity and provide a useful tool for managing land.

The study approved by the County Board, which is expected in several months, will determine how much the bison would cost to purchase and maintain, whether grants are available and which bison-related activities the county could offer visitors.

But the first question to consider is whether adequate habitat exists for bison in the county parks, Lewanski said.

“There’s more questions than answers right now,” he said.

The bison could go to Whitetail Woods, a regional park north of Farmington, and the adjacent Vermillion Highlands, a 2,822-acre tract largely managed by the University of Minnesota and the state Department of Natural Resources. About 400 acres could be carved out of that area to provide enough room for 50 bison, according to county research.

Other possibilities include 250 acres in Vermillion Highlands near Miesville (though a water source would be required there), along with Spring Lake Park Reserve west of Hastings — each of which might accommodate about 30 bison — and Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan, which could handle 10.

There are at least three other bison herds in the metro area: the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel, the Belwin Conservancy in Afton — both of which host bison seasonally — and the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. The zoo is interested in exploring a partnership with Dakota County, Lewanski said.

In Minnesota outside the metro area, bison can be found at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne and Minneopa State Park near Mankato, where visitor numbers have quadrupled since the animals arrived in 2015.