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About the Refuge

Bison Bull, close up side view of head.  Photo by Ryan Hagerty, USFWS

From a population of 30 to 60 million animals roaming throughout North America, bison reached a low of 100 in the wild in the late 1800's.

Since 1908, the National Bison Range has played an important role in the successful recovery of these magnificent animals.

The fact that we can still see bison on the landscape is one of the finest accomplishments in the history of the National Wildlife Refuge System. 

 

President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Bison Range on May 23, 1908 when he signed legislation authorizing funds to purchase suitable land for the conservation of bison. It was the first time that Congress appropriated tax dollars to buy land specifically to conserve wildlife. The overall mission of the National Bison Range is to maintain a representative herd of bison, under reasonably natural conditions, to ensure the preservation of the species for continued public enjoyment.

The original herd of bison released in 1909 was purchased with private money raised by the American Bison Society and then donated to the Refuge. Today, 350-500 bison call this refuge home. To keep track of herd health, the Refuge conducts an annual Bison Roundup. And to ensure the herd is in balance with their habitat, surplus bison are donated and/or sold live (more information can be found in the Science and Resource Management sections).

The Refuge is essentially a small, low-rolling mountain connected to the Mission Mountain Range by a gradually descending spur. Range elevation varies from 2,585 feet at headquarters to 4,885 feet at High Point on Red Sleep Mountain, the highest point on the Range. Much of the National Bison Range was once under prehistoric Glacial Lake Missoula, which was formed by a glacial ice dam on the Clark Fork River about 13,000 to 18,000 years ago. The lake attained a maximum elevation of 4,200 feet, so the upper part of the Refuge was above water. Old beach lines are still evident on north-facing slopes. Topsoil on the Range is generally shallow and mostly underlain with rock which is exposed in many areas, forming ledges and talus slopes. Soils over the major portion of the Range were developed from materials weathered from strongly folded pre-Cambrian quartzite and argillite bedrock.

Today, the National Bison Range is a diverse ecosystem of grasslands, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests, riparian areas and ponds. The Range is one of the last intact publicly-owned intermountain native grasslands in the U.S. In addition to herds of bison, it supports populations of Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep as well as coyotes, mountain lions, bears, bobcat and over 200 species of birds.

Bison and humans have coexisted for a very long time. In North America, flint spear points as old as 1200 years have been found among bison bones. Native Americans hunted for meat as well as for hides for clothing and shelter. And bison were able to furnish much more - sinew used for bowstrings, hooves boiled to make glue, dung burned as fuel, and toe bones used like dice. The relationship with bison formed the basis of many Plains Indian beliefs, stories and religions. 

The local Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people convey how important the buffalo is to their traditional way of life. Today, the Tribe keeps their culture vibrant and alive with an annual River Honoring, Pow Wows, Native language schools, active cultural committees, and a tribal museum at the People's Center. For more information, visit www.cskt.org.

Bison herds in the Mission Valley date back to the late 1800’s when a Pend d’Oreille man of the Flathead Reservation returned home from the plains of eastern Montana with four bison calves. The herd quickly grew to 13 animals. At that point, partners Michel Pablo and Charles Allard bought the herd. The Pablo-Allard herd thrived in the Mission Valley’s open grasslands. It became one of the largest private bison herds at the time when bison were most threatened with extinction. However, when it was announced the Flathead Indian Reservation would be opened for homesteading in 1910, surviving partner Pablo began making arrangements to rid himself of his herd. The US Government declined to purchase the bison so Pablo sold them to Canada.

Just after this, the American Bison Society pushed the US government to set aside land to protect and conserve the American bison. The National Bison Range was one such area. And after its establishment, the American public pitched in to provide funds to purchase bison to place on the new Refuge. The American Bison Society, under the direction of William Hornaday, solicited donations throughout the country. Over $10,000 was raised, enough to purchase 34 bison from the Conrad herd. Located in Kalispell, Montana, these bison were descended from the famous Pablo/Allard herd. To supplement this, Alicia Conrad added two of her finest animals to the effort. The Refuge also received one bison from Charles Goodnight of Texas and three from the Corbin herd in New Hampshire. These 40 animals, all donated to the Refuge and coming from private herds, form the nucleus of 300-400 bison roaming the Range today. 

Last Updated: Mar 12, 2013
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