Bison Roamed the Mountains Too

Archeologists found evidence of bison in Glacier National Park’s high alpine environment. It changed how we understand these animals and the people who interacted with them.

By Brent Rowley

Bison skull sits on ground next to green vegetation
A bison skull found in Glacier National Park in summer 2022. Teeth from this skull taught us that bison have used habitats across all elevations in Glacier for at least 4,400 years.

Image credit: NPS

On a hot September day in Montana, on a ridge overlooking a sparkling blue lake, Glacier National Park’s archeology crew was studying ice patches. The crew was looking for traces of an unlikely animal in the park’s high alpine environment—bison. In the forefield of an ice patch, an area that had been locked in snow and ice for thousands of years until only recently, appeared a very large tooth. When examined, it was confirmed to be a bison tooth.

A common misperception is that bison are usually associated with the Great Plains. So what were they doing at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level on the crest of the Continental Divide? To answer this question, Glacier National Park is using carbon dating techniques and stable isotope analysis on old bison bones and teeth to understand when these animals lived and what they ate. And it will help us better appreciate how Indigenous people and bison have historically used this landscape.

According to preliminary, unpublished results, the bison tooth and bone samples range from 165 to 4,390 years old. This is remarkable because it shows bison were inhabiting alpine environments seasonally over long periods of time. Clearly, the bison were consistently using multiple areas of the park for millennia. Perhaps more surprising is that the bison samples contained a high carbon-3 to carbon-4 ratio, which tells us the animals ate cold weather grasses and spent much of their lives in the park’s foothills and mountains.

Bison teeth
Bison teeth from 165 to 4,390 years ago show that the animals spent much of their lives in Glacier National Park's foothills and mountains.

Image credit: NPS

Glacier’s research shows that until the late 19th century, bison were not only the biggest, most common herbivores of the Great Plains, but also well established in the Rocky Mountains, even in high alpine environments. And wherever there were bison, there were people who relied on them for food and clothing and connected with them spiritually. These new insights bolster and enrich the park’s present-day support of the Blackfeet Nation’s efforts to restore bison to the area and the bison’s ultimate use of varied habitats across jurisdictions.

About the author
Brent Rowley is an archeologist with Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park

Last updated: December 30, 2022