National Bison Range turns 100

By Jim Mann
Moiese, Montana (AP) 5-08

The National Bison Range at Moiese is widely known as a hot spot for wildlife watching, and less known for its role in saving a species from extinction 100 years ago.

A centennial celebration will be held at the range May 23, the date that Congress enacted legislation that created the range and established its initial bison herd.

“The whole concept of saving an endangered species sort of began with the American Bison Society 100 years ago,” said Bill West, the Bison Range’s project leader. “And it started the idea of philanthropy in the wildlife realm, and the idea of buying land specifically for wildlife.”

An estimated 30 million to 60 million bison roamed North America prior to settlement of the West in the 1800s, a period that delivered a stunning slaughter that drove bison populations to the brink of extinction.

By 1902, there were only 700 bison in private herds and the only protected herd, in Yellowstone National Park, numbered just 23 animals.

“The Bison Range was established at about the time bison numbers hit rock bottom,” West said.

“They came very close to extinction,” said Pat Jamieson, the range’s outdoor recreation planner. “And this was an effort by a lot of people to make sure that didn’t happen, and we have been successful. One hundred years ago, people thought of us today.”

Tony Incashola, director of the Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, said he thinks the 100-year celebration well-deserved.

“It brings people back to reality, to the focus of the significance of the bison and the role it has with the people that live here,” Incashola said, noting that bison still play an important role in tribal culture.

“The bison, we believe, have been passed down from generation to generation,” he said. “It has been taught to us from an early age that it is a gift from the creator. It has played an important role in our survival.”

West said the Bison Range and its original herd were the products of a fortunate chain of events and efforts on the part of a few key people.

Incashola said those events stretch back to a Pend d’Oreille Indian called Falcon Robe, who was the first to suggest that tribal chiefs start their own bison herds.

His stepfather, Walking Coyote, acquired bison calves from Eastern Montana in 1873, bringing them to the Flathead Valley and starting a herd.

In 1884, Michel Pablo and Charles Allard purchased 13 bison from Walking Coyote for $2,000 in gold. The herd numbered about 300 animals by 1896, when Allard died, and his portion of the animals were sold to Charles Conrad of Kalispell.

The American Bison Society was founded in 1905 by William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Bison Range was established in 1908, and the following year 34 animals were purchased from the Conrad herd and donated by the bison society to the range.

Incashola said it is believed that the existing herd is directly descended from the original herd established by Walking Coyote.

West noted that when Charles Conrad died in 1902, his wife Alicia’s perseverance in maintaining the herd was remarkable for a time when most private bison herds were not successful, and most privately owned bison were slaughtered and eaten.

“A lot of watershed things happened and they might not have happened if we didn’t have a conservation president and they might not have happened if Alicia Conrad and other people didn’t do what they did,” West said.

There are bison management challenges that remain today because the decline of the bison population was so severe.

“As we got down to 100 animals in the wild and maybe 1,000 left on the continent, they were only carrying limited genetic traits,” West said. “Now that we are at a half-million, they still have those limited traits that existed at the population bottleneck.”

Now private, federal and tribal bison managers keep close tabs on bison genetics. Some bison can be the sole possessors of specific traits called “private” genes.

The Bison Range’s most famous buffalo was a partial albino called Big Medicine that was born in 1923 and lived to a ripe age of 26.

“He was a magnificent animal and they took great care of him so he lived a lot longer,” West said.

In the 1940s, a group of bison was taken from the Bison Range to populate Alaska’s Delta Junction Bison Range. West said it is believed that Big Medicine’s offspring and genetics were removed from the herd when that happened.

“We haven’t seen any albinism again in the Bison Range herd,” he said.

Now the Bison Range herd is managed carefully to maintain as much genetic diversity as possible. While animals sometimes are shipped out to other refuges, it’s been 23 years since animals have been taken in.

The herd last fall numbered about 340 animals, Jamieson said, and 40 to 60 calves will be born by the end of this month.

The success in maintaining a bison herd served as a model for populating the 18,766-acre range with other wildlife.

In 1910, four whitetail deer were moved from Missoula to the range and antelope from Yellowstone National Park were released. Seven elk from Wyoming were released on the range in 1911 and mule deer were brought to the range in from Yellowstone in 1918. Twelve bighorn sheep, donated from Canada’s Banff National Park, were released in 1922, and in 1964 mountain goats were released on the range.