American Buffalo (Bison bison)
Face on view of line of bison with Mission Mountains in background.

As one of the three initial reserves set aside for the preservation of the American bison, this National Bison Range has played an important role in the great success story of recovery of the once endangered plains bison. Today the Bison Range maintains a herd of 250-300 bison, excluding each year’s calves. Our goal is to conserve bison as a species, conserve bison genetic diversity, and provide public opportunity to view bison in a natural prairie setting. [Bison]

It was through the vision of few far-sighted individuals that we still have bison today. Even in the late 1800s, there were people who felt that this magnificent animal was worth saving. Ranchers such as Charles Goodnight of Texas, James McKay of Winnipeg, Canada, Michel Pablo and Charles Allard of Montana, and CJ “Buffalo” Jones were just a handful of the ranchers who maintained herds. Their motivation for maintaining bison herds was a combination of respect and feeling for the great animals and part for the economic benefits. From these scattered bands, many public herds, including the National Bison Range in western Montana, were started.

Bison herds in the Mission Valley originated when a native American of the Pend d’Oreille tribe returned home from the plains of eastern Montana to the Flathead Reservation with four bison calves. By 1884, his herd had grown to 13 animals, when they were sold to local ranchers and partners Michel Pablo and Charles Allard. The Pablo-Allard herd thrived and became one of the largest private bison herds in the country.  When Allard died suddenly in 1896, a division of the herd became necessary. Beginning in 1901, Allard’s family began to sell their portion of the bison herd. Part was sold in that year to Charles and Alicia Conrad of Kalispell, Montana.

William T. Hornaday, the President of the American Bison Society (founded in New York City in 1905, with President Roosevelt as Honorary President), assisted by many of its members, actively lobbied Congress to purchase suitable land while committing the American Bison Society to supply the bison needed to begin a new herd. Range land was purchased by the Government from five allotments and from the Flathead Nation in 1908, removing it from lands to be made available in 1910 to non-Indian settlers. Meanwhile, after the President signed the Bison Range Act, the American Bison Society began soliciting donations throughout the country to purchase bison. In all, people from 29 of the 46 States then in the Union contributed $10,560.50 during the one year effort.

By 1909 Charles Conrad had died, but his wife Alicia had become a staunch supporter of the bison cause. She agreed to sell 34 bison to the American Bison Society and then donated a bull and cow she described as her two finest animals. During the same time William Hornaday persuaded Charles Goodnight, the famous Texas rancher to donate two bison from his Texas panhandle bison herd. Goodnight’s bison were shipped to Alicia Conrad where they were added to the herd (one of which died before reaching the new Refuge). From New Hampshire, Austin Corbin donated three more.

The National Bison Range herd shows high genetic diversity in relation to bison of the federal herds with one of the highest levels of allelic richness, heterozygosity, and private alleles of the federal herds tested. Bison Range animals also have a very low level of cattle allele introgression. Only twelve new bison have been added to the herd since 1910 (diagram of full herd history). Though small, the actual amount of cattle genetic material in the Refuge herd is unknown. Genetic drift and management actions may be decreasing the level of cattle allele introgression in the herd.

Though herd health is an important aspect of herd management, Refuge bison are managed as wild bison and with the exception of bison capture operations, the bison are left alone to maintain their own lifestyle. The Refuge removes about 20-60 bison each year depending on the ecological carrying capacity of the Refuge and to protect the habitat from overgrazing. The surplus bison are first used for genetic conservation purposes by transfer to other Service herds, but the rest can then be donated to other public herds, Native American tribes according to the updated donation protocol. If requests for donation do not match the surplus, individual animals can be sold via a sealed bidding process. Surplus animals are generally 4 years old or less and no calves are removed from the population. The Range’s herd plays an important role in the continued recovery of the species.

Facts About Bison

5-6 feet high at shoulder
males 2000 pounds
females 1000 pounds
Grazer - grass
15-20 years
Late July through August
Young (usually 1) born mid April through May
Throughout day in open grasslands, along Red Sleep Mountain Drive during summer season and from Highway 93 (Ravalli Hill) in winter.