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Nellie is a young bison new to ZooMontana. 

ZooMontana is becoming a little more like Montana.

The zoo will unveil a bison exhibit with a pair of the iconic American mammals at the end of November.

Bert, a 1-year old bison, and Nellie, a 6-month old, will romp in an exhibit covering several acres next to the zoo’s Homestead House, home to the zoo’s preschool program.

ZooMontana bison

Bert, a young bison at ZooMontana, in his quarantine pen in September.

“We’ve always felt that we have the great opportunity to help tell the story of the bison,” zoo director Jeff Ewelt said.

Incorporating animals native to the surrounding landscape of zoos is part of a trend among zoos to offer more education about local ecosystems.

Bison have always been in the master plan for ZooMontana, Ewelt said, but past funding issues complicated making it happen. The zoo was able to secure funding with a $45,000 donation from Valley Credit Union to sponsor the exhibit, and a previous donation from the Don and Carol Roberts Foundation.

ZooMontana bison

The new bison exhibit at ZooMontana, which is scheduled to open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on November 15.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” Ewelt said.

Bert was born on a private ranch in Montana, but was trampled and broke his leg. The zoo acquired him from the veterinarian who treated and effectively raised him. The leg is healed, though Bert may have a bit of a limp.

Nellie was raised on a private ranch near Judith Gap. Both Bison are still under quarantine, and the zoo is waiting on a final vaccination for the animals and some final fencing work in the exhibit before it’s ready to open.

The zoo is using a type of fence known as New Zealand Fencing, which Ewelt said is well known among zoos.

“They respect fencing, which is pretty cool,” he said. “(But) every now and then they don’t.”

The zoo is also hoping to add another animal this spring, as the exhibit is planned for three bison.

Bison historically roamed from Alaska to Mexico, according to the National Park System, but European settlement decimated buffalo herds that were once said to black out vast swaths of prairie.


Nellie is a young bison new to ZooMontana. 

Between 30 and 100 million animals roamed the Great Plains before 1800, according to the Smithsonian institute. By 1890, fewer than 1,000 remained.

The building of the railroad played a key role in the systematic slaughter of bison, but the Smithsonian also notes that the government supported killing off herds in an “organized effort to destroy the livelihood of Plains Indians.”

Some American Indian tribes built their economies and food sources around bison herds.

Yellowstone bison

Bison gather in a water hole in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park in late September.

Bison now live in areas like national parks, private farms or tribal preserves.

“The Native American aspect of it is a big deal for us as well,” Ewelt said. “We want to incorporate their story in the bison as well.”

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the name of the donor funding the bison exhibit is Valley Credit Union, and that the donation for the bison exhibit was $45,000. The credit union also gave an additional $25,000 to ZooMontana for other projects. 



Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.