The National Bison Range

The National Bison Range

The National Bison Range is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It was established in 1908 and is one of the oldest Wildlife Refuges in the nation.

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A large portion of the 18, 500 acre The National Bison Range consists of native Palouse prairie; forests, wetlands, and streams are also found here providing a wide range of habitats for wildlife. Elk, deer, pronghorn, black bear, coyote and ground squirrels are just some of the mammals that share the area with 350 to 500 bison. Over 200 species of birds also call this home including eagles, hawks, meadowlarks, bluebirds, ducks, and geese.


The National Bison Range : General Information

Fees are charged during the summer (mid-May to late October). The Range is part of the U.S. Fee System and accepts Golden Passes and Federal Waterfowl Stamps. Pay fees at the Visitor Center.

The Range is closed at night. Check the Contact Us page for current hours.

Camping is not allowed on the Range.

Visitor Center

The best place to start your visit is at the Visitor Center. Here you will find informative displays and handouts, restrooms, videos, a bookstore, and staff to answer your questions. Pay entrance fees here.

Auto Tours

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 2,000feet. 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 Contact Us page for 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.

Picnic Area

The Range has a picnic area near Mission Creek. There are tables, grills, water, and accessible toilets. A covered pavilion is available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no garbage cans, so please pack out all trash.

How to get here:

From Missoula: Travel north on US Highway 93 to Ravalli, turn left(to the west) on to State Highway 200, travel approximately 5 miles to the junction of Highways 200 and 212, turn right(to the north) and travel approximately 5 miles to the entrance of the Range at Moiese.

From Kalispell: Travel south on US Highway 93 or State Highway 35 to Polson, then travel Highway 93 through Pablo and Ronan to the junction of Highway 93 and State Highway 212, travel 12 miles (through Charlo) to the entrance of the Range at Moiese.

From the west: Travel Highway 200 through Dixon to the junction of Highways 200 and 212, turn left(to the north) and travel approximately 5 miles to the entrance of the Range at Moiese.

The National Bison Range

Refuge Manager
132 Bison Range Road
Moiese, MT 59824
(406) 644-2211

Located in western Montana, the Range protects one of the most important of the remaining herds of American bison or buffalo. Within these lands of the beautiful Flathead Valley, in the “Land of the Shining Mountains,” from 300 to 500 of the great shaggy animals roam over nearly 19,000 acres of grassland and park-like patches of timber. When visiting the refuge don’t miss the two hour Red Sleep Mountain self-guided drive.

This is an area of steep hills and narrow canyons at the southern end of the Flathead Valley, which lies in the shadows of the majestic Mission Range, northwest of Missoula in western Montana. Though snow piles into huge drifts in nearby hills, the Bison Range is so located that it is scantily covered in winter. Even in the worst weather, bison are ruggedly self-sufficient, and can find forage by rooting through the snow.

Besides the bison, the Range holds herds of whitetail and mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns. There are also a few Rocky Mountain goats.

The National Bison Range: The Decline of the Bison

American bison originally ranged from Great Slave Lake in Canada to Mexico, and from Nevada and Oregon to Tennessee and Pennsylvania. Great herds containing perhaps 50 million animals wandered over the prairies in the early 1800’s. The 40-year period, ending around 1880, marked a slaughter of big game such as the world had never seen. Millions of these great beasts were shot, and stripped of their hides. Sometimes only the tongues were taken.

Carcasses were left to rot in the prairie sun. By 1883 bison were practically gone, and by 1900 only 20 wild bison were known to exist. Fortunately, there were a few privately owned throughout the country – pitiful remnants of the once majestic herds. From these scattered bands the Bison Range herd was started.

One of these small herds was the outgrowth of a hunting expedition by Indians. In 1873 a party of Pend d’ Oreille Indians went from the Flathead Valley to the plains east of the Rockies for their meat supply. One of them, Walking Coyote, brought back four young bison calves. Descendants of these animals comprised the famous Pablo-Allard herd, part of which eventually became the Conrad herd at Kalispell, Montana.

Visiting the National Bison Range

The best place to start your visit to the Bison Range is the Visitor Center. Here you will find informative displays on the bison, its history and its habitat. Helpful staff will answer your questions, direct you to areas where you are most apt to see wildlife and assist you in emergencies.

The highlight of a visit to the Range is the two hour Red Sleep Mountain self-guided drive. A short tour, the Buffalo Prairie Drive, is also available for those with less time. Both tours begin and end at the visitor center. It is recommended that you check with refuge personnel regarding hours of operation.

Picnic sites and a nature trail are available in the Day Use Area. Public fishing is permitted along Mission Creek as posted, and on the Jocko River where it flows through the south edge of the Range. The Jocko River fishing access is located 3 miles (5 km.) west of Ravalli on State Highway 200. Compliance with all applicable state regulations is required.

Special tours are provided for organized groups if arrangements are made in advance. Otherwise, visitors are restricted from the open range. This is a precaution for the safety of visitors, and to minimize the adverse impacts of overuse.

Red Sleep Mountain
Self Guided Auto Tour

Numbered signs along the drive provide information on habitat and natural features.

The drive begins on Red Sleep Mountain Drive. The first stop on the drive describes the habitat. The grasslands are made up of a combination of native bunchgrasses and broad leaved plants called forbs. The plants are dry land adapted and can survive the Bison Range’s average rainfall of only 13 inches per year. Some bird species nest only in these bunchgrasses.

The drive follows Pauline Creek for short distance. Pauline Creek is an intermittent stream with several small impoundments that supply water for wildlife. The stream-side thickets are supported by water seeping out from the creek. This is a good place to watch for some of the many song birds that use this area. In fall, bears frequently search here for berries.

Next you will come to Elk Lane. Elk Lane joins some of the eight grazing units of the Range and leads to the roundup corral. Bison are held in this lane during roundup each fall. Springs in the lane and else where on the range have been improved with watering troughs for better wildlife water supply.

The road then winds steeply through what are called”edge” habitats. These are excellent places to view wildlife, especially birds. Each habitat has it’s own complement of wildlife species. The edge between two habitats will harbor species from both and some are just creatures of the edge. Some birds nest in forests and forage in grasslands.

As you gain elevation you will notice that the Forest communities thrive at the higher elevations, on the cooler north sides of hills and in moist draws and depressions. Douglas fir grow on the north sides where their seedlings can get a foothold. Ponderosa Pine are found on the dryer warmer south side.

The highest point of Red Sleep Drive is at 4,700 feet. The highest spot on the Range at 4,800 feet is to the right. The display here describes the glaciers and historic Lake Missoula that helped to form the valley.

Descending from the high point you will come to Antelope Ridge. This area is a good example of how grasslands have evolved along with grazers. Bison, elk and pronghorn use this prairie resource. Grasses grow from the base of the stem so they may be grazed and still continue to grow. Different animals eat different kinds or parts of plants at different growth stages to minimize competition.

Continuing along prarie Drive you will come to sign post 8. Here you will see Buffalo wallows, dry dust beds, often found in clay banks. Bison roll here to rid themselves of insects and also display dominance by displacing lower ranked animals from the wallow.

Your drive will not take you through the river bottom woodlands of Cottonwood and Juniper which are sub-irrigated from Misson Creek and provide lush vegetation and cover. Watch for white-tail deer, elk and a variety of waterfowl and other birds.

The final stop on the drive is the Bison Corrals. These corrals provide for safe handling of the bison during our annual roundup when bison are age marked and vaccinated for brucellosis and other cattle diseases.

History of the Bison Range

The history of the bison, or buffalo, in the Flathead Valley began in about 1873 when Walking Coyote, a Pend d’ Oreille Indian, returned from Blackfeet Country on the plains with five orphaned calves. When he had about 13 buffalo, he sold them to two ranchers, Michael Pablo and Charles Allard. At that time, of the 30 to 70 million bison that once roamed the plains, less than 100 remained in the wild and there were fewer than 1,000 left. The Pablo/Allard herd had become the largest herd in existence. Allard’s heirs sold his portion of the herd to Charles Conrad in Kalispell and animals from the Conrad herd formed the nucleus of the Bison Range stock.

As the valley became settled, Pablo realized that his large herd of free-roaming buffalo would not be very welcome, and he attempted to sell them to the United States Government. When he received little response, he sold the herd to Canada. The sale of this last, large herd out of the country produced a huge public outcry which led to the formation of the American Bison Society. Through the efforts of William Hornaday of the Smithsonian Institution, President Theodore Roosevelt and congress were persuaded to set aside lands for the preservation of the American bison. Three reserves were established between 1907 and 1909 to save bison from extinction.

The National Bison Range was one of these, and was established in 1908. Today bison are no longer in danger of extinction and there are more than 140,000 in North America. A large percentage of these are in private herds.

Currently, some 350 to 500 bison roam the 18,500 acres of the Bison Range, which is a part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Range is made up primarily of native Palouse prairie grasslands, but also includes mountain forest, wetlands and river bottom woodlands. In addition to bison, these diverse habitats provide a home for some 50 different animals and over 200 bird species.

Hunting & Habitat

The wasteful killing of bison that led to the near extinction of this magnificent animal dramatized a need to regulate hunting of large animals such as elk, antelope, and deer. This eventually led to the establishment of modern game regulations, enforced throughout the country today, which closely regulate harvest of big game, permitting ample numbers to remain and perpetuate their kind.

The most serious problem confronting wildlife today is a result of land use changes which have a detrimental effect on habitat or areas occupied by wildlife. To survive, wildlife need adequate water, food, and cover.

The Bison Range is intensively managed for species diversity. Rotational grazing and weed control pro-grams maintain the grasslands. Where possible, biological weed control uses insects which feed only on specific noxious plants. A vaccination and testing program provides effective disease control in the Bison herd. Population control, to maintain bison and other grazers within the carrying capacity, is done through a live-sale for the bison, and transplant for other wildlife. A special program monitors waterfowl and other bird communities.

The National Bison Range: Bison Facts

While true buffalo are the Cape buffalo of Africa or the water buffalo of Asia, the American bison has been called”buffalo” for so long that we now use the names interchangeably. The bison’s only relatives are remnants of another bison species, called the wisent, which survives in small numbers on reserves in Europe.

Bison are well adapted to life on the open grasslands. Their heavy coats protect them from both summer sun and winter winds. Their thick winter coat is so well insulated that snow can lay on their backs without melting.

They are strong, hardy beasts who suffer few diseases in the wild. The brucellosis attributed to bison herds today is really a cattle disease which was transmitted to bison in some areas. The Bison Range herd is vaccinated against this and other cattle diseases, and is certified brucellosis-free.

Bison are unpredictable and can be very dangerous. They appear slow and docile but really are quite agile and can run as fast as a horse; so don’t plan to outrun one. A bison’s tail is often a handy warning flag. When it hangs down and is switching naturally, the animal usually is unperturbed. If it extends out straight and droops at the end, he/she is becoming mildly agitated. If the tail is sticking straight up, they are ready to charge and you should be somewhere else.. .but do not run!

Bison bulls weigh about 2,000 pounds and have heavy horns and a large hump of muscle which supports their enormous head and thick skull. They have a thick mass of fur on their heads and a heavy cape of fur even in summer. This enhances their size and protects them when fighting. They are especially ill-tempered and roar and battle during the breeding season from mid-July through August.

Cows weigh about half as much as bulls. Their horns are narrower and are slightly curved. Horns on older females almost meet above their heads. Cows have smaller humps and a smoother summer coat. Calves are born from mid-April through May and are a bright rust red color for the first month or so. Cows are very protective of their young and can be even more dangerous than a bull when they have a calf at their side.

Other Wildlife Found on The National Bison Range

Elk or Wapiti (Cervus elaphus)
This large deer is brown to buff with a light rump patch. Bulls have long, swept back antlers. As with most deer, only the males have antlers and these are shed and regrown each year. Bulls round up harems for the tall breeding season. Spotted calves are born in June. Frequent grassland or forest.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
This deer’s large, heart-shaped brown tail becomes a waving white flag when alarmed. White face markings and a browner coat help distinguish it from the mule deer. Antlers have a main beam with upward tines. Breed in November and have spotted fawns in May or June. Prefer river bottom woodlands.

Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemious)
Easily confused as a white-tail because of its white rump patch and black tipped white tail. Tail is not flagged when they run. Coat is grayer and it has no other white. Antlers fork and then fork again. Bucks have a dark forehead patch. Breed in November and fawns are born in June. Most often found on brushy hillsides.

Proughorn or Antelope (Antilocapra americana)
Russet-tan with white markings, pronghorns are animals of the open range. Unlike other animals with horns, which are usually permanent, pronghorns shed just the outside sheath. Females also have small horns. Breed in September with twin fawns born in May and June.

Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis)
Bighorns live in high rocky places. Their light rump patches are similar to those of mule deer from a distance. The ram’s heavy curled horns show a little wrinkle for every winter they have lived. Ewes also have small horns. Breed in November and lambs are born in May and June.

Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus)
Shaggy, white coats protect the goats from chill winds and serve as camouflage on winter snows in the high crags. Both sexes have slender, knife like horns. Breed in November and December and kids are born in April or May. Are best seen on the rocky slides.

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Black bears come in colors ranging from black to brown to buff. Up to 6 or 8 bears inhabit the Range, mostly in wooded areas. Two females usually raise young here. A large brown male has been mistaken for a grizzly but we have had no confirmed grizzly sightings.

Coyote (Canis Iatrans)
This is a medium sized dog-like animal with pointed nose and mottled gray coat. The tail is bushier than most dogs. They hunt in pairs and feed on mostly small animals. Mainly nocturnal. Both parents care for pups raised in a ground den.

Mountain Lion (Felis Concolor) / Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
These cats do live on the Range but are rarely seen because they are nocturnal and because they prefer areas with good cover to hide in.

Grasslands Of The Bison Range
Though grasslands appear as wasteland, they form a rich ecosystem of specially adapted plants and animals. The grasslands of the National Bison Range are native Palouse Prairie. The primary grasses here are Idaho Fescue, Rough Fescue and Bluebunch Wheatgrass. These native bunch grasses grow in clumps with the crown shading their roots. They are specially adapted to dry land conditions. While most plants grow from the tips of their branches or stems, the growth area of grasses is at the base of the stem so that they can continue to grow after their tops have been grazed off.

Grasses are well adapted to the harsh, unsheltered environment of the open prairie which ranges from the driving, icy blast of winter storms to the oppressive heat and searing wind of summer. Leaves die back and the dense crowns protect the root in winter. In summer the long, slender, vertical leaves present less surface to the sun’s rays and prevent overheating.

Palouse Prairie grasslands also contain other broader leaved plants called forbs, usually noted as wildflowers, which also have defenses against the weather extremes. Many are perennials and winter under the snow as tiny flat rosettes of green leaves. In summer their leaves are small, have deeply indented margins to minimize their surface, or curl to reflect the heat. Some are covered with insulating hairs.

The grassland ecosystem is completed with native grazers such as bison and pronghorn and a variety of birds, rodents and predators like the coyote. Grassland birds are usually plentiful but consist of fewer species than would be found in wetter areas. The birds, too, are specially adapted to this environment of extremes. Their backs are streaked so they can nest unseen on the ground in the shade of an overhanging grass clump. They can be seen defending their own patch of turf by singing from song perches, usually tall weeds, around their territorial boundaries.

Mountain Forest
Mountain forest of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine covers the tops of the hills of the Bison Range and surrounding area. Forests are complex ecosystems. The type of trees that make up the forest provide a special environment that affects the kinds of other plants and animals that can live there.

Most forests can develop wherever there is an average temperature greater than 50 degrees in the warmest months and where there is an annual rainfall of about 13 inches. This area is on the edge of forest survival. Moisture levels have created the natural tree patterns you see on the surrounding hills with trees taking hold at higher elevations where it is cooler and moister, on the cooler north sides, or where there are any depressions to hold the moisture.

Spend some time looking closely at trees in the forest. Leaves act as solar collectors, using the heat of the sun to process their food through photosynthesis. The conifer trees of this mountain forest are tiered with the upper branches shorter so that the sun may reach all their branches. Since these trees are evergreen and keep their leaves all year, their leaves are slender needles with a tight waxy surface to retain moisture through dry periods and long winter months when water is frozen.

Birds of the conifer forest are adapted to food sources found here. They eat the pine nuts from cones, new tree buds, seeds and berries plus insects that live in bark or burrow into the wood. Since most of these things are available all year, many forest birds such as chickadees, jays and woodpeckers do not migrate.

Other animals use the forest for shelter and food. Deer and elk browse on woodland plants for winter survival.

The National Bison Range: Wetlands
Wetlands form in any depression where water collects. They may be spring fed, run-off ponds, bays or backwaters, glacial pot holes or old river bends now separated from the main stream.

Wetlands are very important for many reasons. They hold water on the land so it can seep down and recharge the aquifer. They are important in flood control and they filter out contaminants and sediment. Wetlands produce the greatest food biomass of any environment and provide habitat for waterfowl and man)’ other kinds of wildlife.

Large numbers of insect larvae develop in water then crawl up the stems of aquatic vegetation and emerge as flying adults. These larvae provide abundant food for growing ducklings, turtles, fish and many other water creatures. Numerous species of birds, not normally considered water birds, nest near wetlands because of the wonderful supply of insect foods for their young. Watch for swallows swooping over the water catching flying insects.

Like streams, wetlands usually have lush sub-irrigated plant life along their shores. Aquatic vegetation can get a foothold directly in the still waters and includes plants with a variety of strategies. Cattails and rushes, called emergents, are rooted near shores and grow up out of the water. Water weeds are mostly under water with their roots in the silt at the bottom of the pond and their blooms on the water surface. Plants such as duck weed float on the surface with roots that hang down, drawing all their nutrients from the water alone. These tiny leaved plants are the green vegetative cover you see on the ponds.

Streamside Thickets at The National Bison Range
The lush vegetation along watercourses is produced by the extra moisture seeping out from streams to supply sub-irrigation for plant growth along their banks. These streamside thickets, or riparian zones, have an appearance and a microclimate very different from the surrounding rangelands. In addition to much heavier vegetation, there is more shade and higher humidity and increased air movement.

To live in shade, leaves of trees and other plants are broad and flat and are spread on wide branches to maximize collection of the suns rays.

The water for this unique environment comes from rainfall draining from the surrounding hills and from the mountains to the east. These hills and mountains are called a watershed. Water follows the ravines and low spots gradual working its way to the sea. There are several streams on the Bison Range that include Mission Creek, along the north side, and the Jocko River along the south side. Some of these streams drain a large area and flow all year. Others are seasonal, draining only small open areas with little vegetation to hold the moisture.

In flat areas, streams wander and bend, creating little marshes. Stream banks erode at the outside of turns and silt in on the inside, constantly changing the course of the stream. The speed of flowing water varies with the steepness of the terrain and the main current roams from bank to bank. Currents and eddies can create deep holes in otherwise shallow streams so there can be holes and drop-offs in any stream of flowing water.

Fish and insects and other creatures that live in flowing water are rapid swimmers or they are specially adapted to cling to, or hide under rocks. Insect life in streams is more abundant, but made tip of fewer different species than live in still water. Little aquatic vegetation grows in swift streams.

A wide variety of birds and other wildlife, especially deer and small mammals such as mink, live along streams because of the excellent protective cover and the wide variation of food sources to be found there.

Winter at The National Bison Range

Winter puts a whole new edge on survival in the wild. Many food sources have dried up or are buried under the snow blanket. Wildlife must deal with getting about in deep snow and freezing weather. Animals of the Bison Range handle this season in a variety of ways: they migrate, hibernate, adapt or endure.

Some wildlife can continue to find their usual foods such as seeds or browse. Meadow voles and their predators, live in tunnels under the snow and forage as always. Some animals adapt to different foods in winter, finding browse or berries and seeds that stay above the snow. Small animals such as rabbits find the snow raises them to new levels and new bushes to browse on. Hoofed animals paw through the snow for grasses or the succulent winter rosettes of perennial plants.

Those creatures who cannot find winter foods must migrate or hibernate. Ground squirrels are hibernators. This requires locating or digging a suitable den and concentrating on putting on a fat layer to sustain them throughout the winter. A long cold winter might severely tax their ability to survive. Migrants, primarily birds, must also acquire fat reserves for the long trip to their wintering grounds.

Energy demands are high in winter. Even though wildlife seek cover where possible, they require a sizeable supply of heat-producing foods just to keep warm. Moving about in deep snow increases the energy demand-small animals must leap from place to place. When food sources are marginal and wildlife is already stressed, any disturbance causing them to flee, or even keep on alert because of an intrusion, can threaten their survival. Animals’ physical adaptions to winter include heavier winter coats and fat layers and in some cases, a protective change of color.

Plants, too, are stressed by winter and must adapt to deal with it. Loss of moisture is a major problem, since much of their water source is locked in snow and ice. Many trees lose their leaves to avoid evaporative water loss. Some plants over-winter as seeds. Others are protected by an insulating blanket of snow.