The National Bison Range

  by W. Clark Whitehorn








Congress passed a bill in to purchase eighteen thousand acres on the Flathead Reservation to create the National Bison Range. In the same year N. A. Forsyth photographed the roundup of privately owned bison on the reservation. He captioned the picture, "It takes a good horse to keep up." MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, Volume 53 Number 3(Autumn 2003), 63-65; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2003

Although not a man prone to melancholy, Charlie Russell watched the roundup of Michel Pablo's bison herd with decidedly mixed feelings. The pounding excitement and intractability of the animals awed Russell, but their scarcity and the tardiness of the United States government in protecting them gave him pause. "It shure looks like we could feed an[d] protect a few hundred of them," he wrote to Philip Goodwin, "but it seems there aint maney thinks lik us." Fortunately, Russell misjudged his fellow citizens. He also overlooked the provenance of the very herd he helped to round up for the Canadian government.
Most historians agree the bison's primary savior was William Hornaday, a Bronx zookeeper and head of the New York Zoological Society, who helped found the American Bison Society. His influential book The Extermination of the American Bison (1889) helped to acquaint Americans with the perilous scarcity of wild bison, but he was not the first to act to preserve them.
In 1873 or 1874 Samuel Walking Coyote, a Pend d'Oreille from the Flathead Reservation, brought back two bison bulls and two cows after spending the winter with the Blackfeet. Controversy surrounds Walking Coyote's stay with the Blackfeet and his rationale for bringing the animals back-some stories suggest a wronged lover with the bison as an atonement gift-but his simple act of preservation had lasting impact. Ironically, the bison returned with him along the "going to buffalo" route that Salish-speaking peoples from the interior had used for several hundred years to reach the fertile hunting grounds of the plains. Walking Coyote raised the animals at his place on the Flathead River near Dixon, and the herd slowly increased.
In 1884 Charles Allard, Sr., and Michel Pablo, who married tribal members and owned ranches on the Flathead Reservation, bought Walking Coyote's bison, numbering twelve or thirteen animals, and let them roam freely on the reservation. Both men sought to improve their cattle through scientific breeding and thought that bison might improve their cattle strains. In 1893 they also bought twenty-six purebred bison from Charles "Buffalo" Jones, a former buffalo hunter, big-game hunting guide, and bison rancher from Kansas, who in 1902 became the game warden responsible for protecting the Yellowstone bison herd.
In 1896 Charles Allard died and ownership of the herd passed to his wife, Louise Courville. Pablo retained his herd, but the same pressures that had destroyed the Great Plains bison herds were now closing in on Pablo's animals. Many Anglos believed that the Indians on the Flathead Reservation wasted grazing and timber resources. In 1902 western Montanans, led by Congressman Joseph Dixon of Missoula, pressed for the allotment of the Flathead Reservation. Dixon convinced Congress in 1904 to pass a bill calling for the survey and allotment of tribal lands on the Flathead. The 1906 Burke Act exacerbated land loss on the reservation by removing the twenty-five-year restriction on sales of Indian allotments. Now, allottees, in desperate need of cash, could sell their land. Although the Flathead Reservation was not officially opened to non-Indian settlement until 1910, Anglo businessmen and settlers had already begun to acquire lands.
For Michel Pablo, the prospect of allotment brought an end to his bison range. Settlers erected fences, restricting the herd's mobility while others poached his unguarded animals. In an attempt to avoid the inevitable loss of his bison, Pablo tried in vain to sell his herd to the federal government. The Canadian government, however, was delighted with the opportunity to reintroduce bison into its vast prairies and purchased two hundred head from Pablo in 1907.
Another attempt by a private bison owner to sell a bison herd to the federal government would spur federal action. The Blue Mountain Forest and Game Preserve of New Hampshire-which included a herd of 160 bison descended from 22 brought in by Coney Island developer Austin Corbin-had, like Pablo, failed to sell its herd to the federal government. The expense of keeping one of the largest herds in the nation threatened the preserve's operations, but writer Ernest H. Baynes, whose imagination had been captured by the Corbin herd, took up the cause. In 1905 he helped convince William Hornaday of the need to create and head an organization, the American Bison Society, to help protect bison. The men also saw a need to create a refuge where the animals could reproduce under natural conditions, though protected from hunters.
Hornaday, who had collected bison specimens in Montana in 1886 for the Smithsonian Institution, believed the state would be an ideal site for a bison reserve and used the American Bison Society to help raise money to locate a site. Perhaps embarrassed by Canada's willingness to buy American bison to rebuild its herds, and pressured by the society, Congress passed a bill in 1908 to purchase eighteen thousand acres on the Flathead Reservation to create the National Bison Range (NBR). Roosevelt immediately signed the bill, and in 1909 the first animals arrived. Some of these animals came from Allard's widow, who had sold her animals to Charles Conrad, a Kalispell rancher and businessman, in 1899. Legendary Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight donated two animals, and the Blue Mountain preserve sent several more.
For conservation history, the bison's story ends there, but bison history did not end with this initial act of preservation. After all, it does not take much imagination to wipe out several million animals, but managing a beloved symbol of the wild and unfenced West on an Indian reservation surrounded by cattle ranches in the heart of hunting country requires some creativity.
The challenges begin with bison's natural behavior. The fenced enclosure, though seemingly vast, restricts their ability to move on to new range when numbers exceed the land's carrying capacity. Because bison reproduce rapidly in the absence of predators, range managers have had to hold large roundups to remove excess animals. In addition, Americans' bison infatuation led to a clamor for tours, requiring hands-on management of both tourists and animals. The rise of an automobile culture in the West, and its meteoric boom after World War II, eventually led to self-guided driving tours along nineteen miles of road in 1966.
For the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, those issues are secondary. The bison that Walking Coyote had saved now walked on land guaranteed to the Salish and Kootenai tribes. This double loss of land-first to allotment, then to a wildlife refuge-proved galling to many tribal members who thought the range should come under their management. In the s a new national interest in Indian rights, spurred by publication of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), suggested the need for more Indian self-governance. In 1975 Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (P.L. 93-368), which gave the secretary of the interior the right to enter into compacts with the tribes, transferring to them authority to administer federal facilities and programs designed to benefit Indian tribes. A 1994 amendment to this act-the Tribal Self-Governance Act-made it unnecessary for the program to be directly beneficial. Instead, if a tribe could prove a historical, geographical, or cultural link to the program in question, then its council could petition to take over management. In 1994 the Salish and Kootenai did so, asking that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service give managerial responsibility of the range to theThe Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would like to assume management of the National Bison Range, which is located on tribal land lost during the allotment era in the early twentieth century. The issue remains unresolved-during public meetings held in spring 2003 proponents and opponents found little common ground. M. J. Elrod, photographer, MHS Photograph Archives, Helena tribes. Resistance from western Montanans was immediate. Tribal Chairman Mickey Pablo's statement that tribal hiring practices would determine employment scared job seekers who feared Indians would receive preferential hiring treatment. Others believed the biological complexity of the range exceeded the tribes' managerial abilities, citing in particular the noxious weed problem that had troubled reservation lands for years. In contrast, the NBR's own biological weed control efforts had received national praise, especially its successful battle against an infestation of St. John's wort.
Pressure on the Interior Department eventually quashed the tribes' petition, but, like the bison, the proposal found new life. At public meetings held by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribes in spring 2003 proponents and opponents found little common ground. One man called the proposal "another handout" to Indians while a proponent noted that many people came to the reservation to hunt and fish because its wildlife populations were healthier than elsewhere. Resolution, as is the case for so many of the Old West's legacies, will likely come from lawyers wielding documents just as fearsome as the rifles used to hunt bison in the nineteenth century.
To find out more about the NBR, call (406) 644-2211 or visit the range, which is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The visitor center offers several interpretive exhibits as well as a video. The self-guided driving tour over and around Red Sleep Mountain costs four dollars per vehicle and snakes through a variety of habitats, including mountain forest, grassland, and riparian. In addition to bison, the range includes pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, many species of raptors, and the ever-present western meadowlark; in all, the range supports approximately fifty mammal and two hundred bird species. The entrance is located off Highway 212 at Moiese. For more information, e-mail or write to the NBR at 132 Bison Range Road, Moiese, Montana 59824.

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Summer 2001), 70-73; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.