National Bison Range | Montana
Best Times of the Day for Viewing
Early morning and evening
From Missoula, MT (approx. 45 minute drive)
From I-90 W take MT-200 W to MT-212 N and follow MT-212 N to Bison Range Rd
From West Glacier, MT (approx. 2 hour drive)
Take US-2 W, Montana Hwy 206, MT-35 E, US-93 S and MT-212 S to Bison Range Rd
From Whitefish, MT (approx. 2 hour drive)
Follow U.S. 93 S to MT-212 S, Follow MT-212 S to Bison Range Rd, Turn right onto MT-212 S, Turn left onto Bison Range Rd
Overview of this Wildlife Watching Landscape
Established in 1909 and stocked with descendants of bison rescued from extinction by Pend d'Oreille people this sanctuary protects hundreds of bison on 18,500 acres (7,487 hectares) of rolling grassland and forest. Take short nature walks from access points along 24 miles (39 kilometers) of road loop.
Places and Pointers for Viewing
Prairie Drive/West Loop: a 5-mile gravel road that travels through the flats. It is open to trailers and large RVs. It goes by the Bison Display Pasture. Plan for 1/2 hour. Open year round.
Red Sleep Mountain Drive: a 19-mile, one-way, gravel road which gains 2,000 feet. There are many switchbacks and 10% grades along the drive. No trailers or vehicles over 32 feet are allowed on this drive. Allow 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Open mid-May to late October. (Check the websitefor current information.)
Walking Trails: Hiking is limited on the Range to a few short walking trails. A mile-long Nature Trail is located at the Picnic Area and 1/4-mile Grassland Trail is at the Visitor Center. The 1/2-mile Bitterroot Trail and 1-mile High Point trail are both located off the Red Sleep Mountain Drive. Walking away from your vehicle is prohibited except for these designated trails.
Geography and History
The Refuge is located on a small, low-rolling mountain range 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.
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.
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.
Type of Wildlife Often Seen
In addition to 350-500 bison, other large wildlife found on the Range include elk, white-tail and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and black bear. Over 200 species of birds also call this home including eagles, hawks, meadowlarks, bluebirds, ducks, and geese. Because of its open grasslands, the Bison Range is a place for the public to enjoy some excellent wildlife observation and photography.
A Visitor Center provides interpretive displays and orientation videos as well as a bookstore and restrooms. Staff is on hand to answer questions and dispense maps and brochures.