National Bison Range in Moiese maintains iconic herds on Montana’s rugged landscape

By Tristan Scott | Photography by Greg Lindstrom

Strolling through the National Bison Range in Moiese is akin to stepping back into a bygone era, when the shag-haired, curve-horned, hump-backed animals roamed the Great Plains in massive herds.

From a population of between 30 and 60 million animals roaming across North America, bison reached a population low of 100 in the wild in the late 1800s. Since 1908, the National Bison Range has played an important role in the successful recovery of the striking creatures, said Amy Lisk, National Bison Range biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bison ranged across the continent in herds numbering from fewer than 10 to more than 10,000. The buffalo was one of the most numerous large mammals to ever exist on the face of the earth. Around 32 million lived on the Great Plains alone, the thumb-shaped band of arid grasslands paralleling the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains from the Texas Panhandle to Southern Canada. An additional 4 to 8 million bison were thought to be scattered to the north, south, east and west of the plains.

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In the past year, the Bison Range has tested free movement of deer, antelope, and elk within the interior of the refuge. By changing the structure of the fencing, the animals are able to move through an area to avoid predators or seek better vegetation. Lisk says the project has met with some success, “It took a while for the animals to understand how to use the openings in the fences, but now it’s working pretty well.”

But pressures on bison began with competition for forage from horses, brought over in the 16th century by Spanish explorers. Further competition came in the form of cattle, which also brought communicable diseases. The demand for bison robes and leather increased the hunting pressure by Native Americans and fur trappers, while the railroads paid professional hunters to provide meat to workers.

In 1880, the mass slaughter began as millions of bison were shot for their meat, hides and for sport. Carcasses were left to rot in the prairie sun, and by 1883 they were close to extinction.

When President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Bison Range in 1908, there had never been an appropriation of money to buy lands expressly to provide shelter and space for wildlife.

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The Bison Range has launched a program for invasive species management, particularly Medusahead, an aggressive invasive grass species native to the Mediterranean region in Europe, which was discovered this year on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Bison Range has been working closely with tribal lands, and Lake, Missoula, and Sanders counties to map out the locations of the plant. Lisk says cattle are believed to be the main transporter of Medusahead.

As one of the three initial reserves set aside for the preservation of American bison, the National Wildlife Refuge in Moiese has played an important role in the success story of recovery of the once endangered plains bison. Today, the herd is maintained at between 350 and 500 animals, while excess bison are sold or donated to provide a gene pool and breeding stock to augment other herds.

The mission of the National Bison Range is “to provide a representative herd of bison, or buffalo, under reasonably natural conditions, to help ensure the preservation of the species for continued public benefit and enjoyment.” Continued next page

“The ultimate goal is to treat them like wildlife, but it’s within a 19,000-acre fenced-in refuge, so it has a carrying capacity,” Lisk said. “We have to manage the population size.”

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Last year’s Bison Roundup – when bison are herded into corrals, inspected for health issues, and genetically sampled – used the park’s newest hydraulic calf shoot, which Lisk says works better than the mechanical calf shoot they’ve used in the past, resulting in no injuries. The park is able to process animals at a faster rate than before. A total of 82 calves and 360 total animals were rounded up. “It was like night and day,” Lisk said. “It has allowed us to streamline the process, ramp up the science and decrease the handling time.”

For the first time in 60 years, bison are grazing refuge-wide, allowing greater access throughout the park in off-season months.

The range is also home to pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, grizzlies, and birds, and numerous wildlife management programs are underway to monitor the bison as well as the other wildlife populations.

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A new bat monitoring station in the Jocko area, which was set up with the help of the National Heritage Project, resulted in over 500 hits on the echolocation device in a two hour span, and recorded 10 different bat species, seven of which are endangered.

National Bison Range Timeline

1908  President Theodore Roosevelt signs legislation creating the National Bison Range.

1909  First bison arrive at refuge. The National Bison Society purchased them from the Conrad herd in Kalispell and donated them to the Bison Range.

1910  Eleven calves born in the range’s first spring.

1921  Executive Order 3569 designates the Bison Range as a refuge and breeding ground for birds.

1933  Big Medicine born. A rare white bison, he had a brown shock of hair on top and blue eyes. White buffalo are sacred to many Native American tribes.

1934  Civilian Conservation Corps works its first of just two summers at the Bison Range. The CCC built Red Sleep Mountain Drive and the range’s front gate, and installed the day use area.

1959  Big Medicine dies at age 26. Today he is on display at the Montana Historical Society’s Montana Museum in Helena.

1966  Self-guided car trips are allowed on Red Sleep Mountain Drive. An episode of the “Lassie” television show is filmed.

1982  A new visitor center is built with displays open to the public.

1993  Record number of visitors in a year set at 217,200.

2005  Ervin Davis, a Bison Range volunteer, receives the National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer of the Year award.

2008  The Bison Range celebrates its centennial.