Montana is home to more than 44 state parks, making it a wonderful place to work as a state park ranger. As employees of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), rangers serve as both law enforcement officers and protectors and managers of the state’s vast natural resources.
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The responsibilities of a state park ranger in Montana go far beyond patrolling state parks and enforcing park laws. These duties include:
- Resource management
- Fee collection
- Visitor services
- Maintenance/ of park facilities
- Planning/coordinating/presenting interpretive programs
- Patrolling fishing spots for rule and fee compliance
- Providing visitor information
- Participating in consumer outreach
Steps to Becoming a Park Ranger in Montana
Meeting the Requirements – Hopeful park rangers must meet the following requirements in order for their applications to be accepted:
- Bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college/university
- One to two years experience in a related area
- Knowledge of standard interpretive principles/practices
- Knowledge of park or outdoor recreation management
- Ability to collect and remit user fees
- Able to use the internet, Microsoft Word and Excel
- Willing to work weekends and holidays
- Able to work in extreme cold and hot temperatures
The best college majors for future park rangers include zoology, park management, natural resource management, forestry, conservation, ecology, etc.
Montana has two state university systems, three four-year private colleges, three community colleges and seven tribal colleges.
Every year of college counts as three months of qualified experience.
Participating in Training – One of the best ways to fulfill the experience qualification for state park ranger jobs in Montana is to complete the National Park Association’s seasonal law enforcement training program. The 300-hour program is offered at various facilities across the country.
Successful completion of the training includes passing a background investigation as well as drug and medical screening. Graduates are qualified to carry a firearm, make arrests, investigate crimes, assist in the execution of warrants, and fill openings for seasonal park rangers. Montana’s two national parks hire approximately 375 (Glacier NP) and 800 (Yellowstone NP) seasonal rangers every summer. Detailed information about enrolling in the seasonal park ranger law enforcement program is available at the Association of National Parks website.
Applying for a Park Ranger Job in Montana – The first step is to submit an application and the supplemental form for park ranger. Current job openings are listed on the Fish, Wildlife and Park website, along with electronic application forms. Interested persons may also obtain a paper application from FWP at 1420 East Sixth Avenue, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701; tel. 406-444-2535.
The hiring process for persons whose applications are accepted includes:
- Written general knowledge test
- Structured interview
- Background investigation
- On-the-job training
State park rangers in Montana earn an average annual salary of $28,000. Benefits include life, health, dental and vision insurance, credit union, deferred compensation program, retirement plan and paid vacations, holidays and sick leave.
Montana’s State and National Park Systems
Montana is home to two national parks: Yellowstone (with Wyoming) and Glacier. The latter joins Canada’s Waterton Lake NP to form the world’s first international peace park. National parks are protected by federal game wardens.
“Big Sky Country” has 44 state parks and seven state forests which keep state park rangers busy in both summer and winter. The most popular parks include:
- Bannack – The best preserved of the state’s ghost towns is in Dillon, MT. The main street of the 1,254-acre site holds 50 buildings reminiscent of Montana’s first gold rush.
- Lewis & Clark Cavern – One of the most important limestone caverns in the northwest is lined with stalactites, stalagmites, columns and helicities. There is a two-mile guided tour of the caves.
- First People’s Buffalo Jump – holds Ulm Pishkun, a prehistoric Native American buffalo jump site near Great Falls. Park rangers present interpretive programs about the importance of buffalo jumps to plains Indians.
- Makoshika – Located outside Glendive, the 11,531-acre park is studded with pine and juniper badland formations and contains many dinosaur fossils.
- Natural Bridge – The natural sandstone bridge near the Red River gorge geological area is 65-feet high and spans 78 feet. A sky lift provides fabulous scenic views.
- Flathead Lake – Montana’s largest lake area contains five different state parks. The lake’s sharp drop-offs contain shipwrecks enjoyed by scuba divers.
- Cooney Reservoir – Located 22 miles from Laurel, MT, it is a winter paradise for ice fisherpersons, ice skaters and cross-country skiers.
Montana Park Ranger Salaries
Park rangers employed by Montana State Parks have the privilege and responsibility of managing Montana’s 54 state parks, including Pictograph Cave State Park in Billings, Frenchtown Pond State Park in Missoula, Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls, and Spring Meadow Lake State Park in Helena. In general, oversight of these parks is left to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The beginning park police salary in MT is $16.57 per hour, which is equivalent to approximately $34,465 per year. There is also the potential of working at the federal level through the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, as shown here:
Park Ranger (Billings, Butte, Dillon, Ennis, Fort Benton, Lewiston, Malta, Miles City, Missoula, Pompeys Pillar)
- Minimum: $11.06/hour
- Maximum: $28.89/hour
Park Ranger (Off-Highway-Vehicle) (Billings, Butte, Dillon)
- Minimum: $15.15/hour
- Maximum: $27.18/hour
Park Ranger (River) (Ennis, Fort Benton)
- Minimum: $15.15/hour
- Maximum: $26.12/hour
Other salary information released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is shown in the table below. This includes beginning salaries associated with the different roles of park rangers in Montana:
Recreation Workers Salaries in Montana
Tour Guides and Escorts Salaries in Montana
Recreational Protective Service Workers Salaries in Montana
Bannack State Park
Mention of a Montana state park ranger brings up visions of a guide in the wilderness overseeing anglers and campers, tagging endangered animals, leading trail hikes and telling campfire stories. But a career as a park ranger in Montana can also involve more surprising functions. At Bannack the job includes working at a ghost town!
Bannack State Park, which lies at an elevation of 5,780 feet 24 miles southwest of Dillon, Montana, has been called the best ghost town in America. Thanks to the rangers who have worked to preserve (not renovate) Montana’s first mining town, the park’s 33,000 or so annual visitors feel like they are truly back in America’s Old West.
History of Bannack State Park in Montana
The town of Bannack was founded in 1862 when gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek and there was a rush of prospectors and businessmen to Montana. By1863 the bustling town had about 3,000 residents.
In 1864 it became Montana’s territorial capital. The town flourished up to the 1930s when better gold deposits were found elsewhere, the population started to diminish, and the state capital was moved to Virginia City. By 1950 the gold was almost gone and Bannack became a ghost town.
In 1952 it was made a Montana state park and the town and its surrounding area came under the management of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
A Park Ranger’s Description of Bannack State Park in Montana
Bannack state park’s main attraction is the ghost town; however, the park includes the surrounding area with two campsites, trails for hiking and bicycling, horseback riding, panning for gold and ice skating (in winter). The town itself contains over 60 well preserved and furnished structures that, except for the modern visitor center, gift shop, bookstore and ranger station/office, are kept as they were in the 1860s.
The structures include, but are not limited to the following:
- Governor’s Mansion
- Masonic Lodge (upstairs) and schoolhouse (downstairs)
- Assay Office
- Hotel Meade
- Goodrich Hotel
- General Store
- Several Saloons
- Mining Houses
- Methodist Church
- Numerous resident dwellings
- Bachelor’s Row
- Gallows and Cemetery (on hillside above town)
Visitors are welcome to tour the ghost town without camping or using any of the outer park facilities. There are both recorded “self tours” or ranger led guided tours.
Disaster Strikes Bannack State Park
On July 17, 2013, water surged down Hangman’s Gulch and flooded Bannack state park. Park Manager, Ranger Dale Carson, said the flood took everyone by surprise. “The water was three feet high and about 20 tourists were trapped when it surged through the center of town, washing away the boardwalk on both sides of the street.” He went on to say how fortunate it was that it didn’t happen during, “Bannack Days,” scheduled for the following weekend. That annual event draws about 5,000 visitors. As it is, one historical building was destroyed and several others were injured. Carson said the streets were littered with large quantities of mud and debris. The park rangers faced a huge clean-up task that forced Bannack to be closed until September.
Special Events at Bannack National Park
The following special events keep the Bannack park rangers especially busy:
- Bannack Days – Held each year on the third weekend of July, this event brings over 5,000 people to the park to ride horse-drawn and ox-drawn wagons, attend puppet shows, medicine shows, concerts and lectures, and enjoy chuckwagon food. Spectators get to witness exciting stagecoach robberies and shootouts. There are also numerous demos (many of them “hands-on”) of such 1860’s activities as candle, soap, and doll making; quilting, log cabin construction, gold panning, mule packing, ice cream churning and loading/shooting black-powder guns (adults only). Park rangers actively participate in almost all of the activities.
- Living History Weekend – This annual event takes place over three days in late September. Park rangers organize and present lectures, exhibits and artifacts that tell the history of what life was like during the first 20 years of Bannack’s existence. Free for Montana residents; $5 for all others.
- Bannack Ghost Walks – There are many stories that have been passed down about ghostly appearances in many of the buildings, especially Hotel Meade. Every October around Halloween the park is open after dark when the rangers have a wonderful time taking people to the places of these mysterious happenings and frightening them with their full bag of ghost stories.
It is easy to understand why Bannack is such a popular state park and why the rangers who work there wouldn’t trade their jobs for any other. They say that Bannack embodies the spirit of mining, the Old West, and the very origins of Montana itself.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
First Peoples Buffalo Jump (FPBJ) is a day-use only state park located outside the small town of Ulm, Montana, 13 miles from Great Falls. The 1,481-acre park sits at an elevation of 3,773 feet in a high plains area of buttes and grasslands.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is said to be the largest buffalo jump in North America and the most used in the world.
FPBJ is owned and managed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The rangers who work at the park must be very knowledgeable about Native American life and culture.
Duties and Responsibilities of Park Rangers at First Peoples Buffalo Jump Park
State park rangers at FPBJ are responsible for a wide variety of functions including:
- Protecting and statistically tracking the park’s wildlife
- Conserving all of the other natural resources.
- Being responsible for park security
- Answering visitor questions
- Providing interpretive functions and materials
- Offering emergency medical assistance
- Maintaining park facilities
- Collecting fees
- Leading interpretive hikes
- Teaching Native American games
- Giving horseback riding lessons
- Presenting historical lectures
- Staffing the visitor/interpretive center
The park area includes a variety of flora and fauna, including prairie grasses and small wildlife. There is a protected black-tailed prairie dog town that is especially attractive to youngsters who listen avidly as park rangers explain the charming creature’s “goings-on about town.” Park visitors are advised to wear heavy hiking boots because of prairie rattlesnakes.
The 6,000-square foot visitor/interpretive center contains buffalo culture exhibits and artifacts, a classroom, storytelling circle, gallery and bookstore. The grounds adjacent to the center hold an outdoor amphitheater, field where traditional Native American games are played, and a picnic area.
Special Events at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
Park rangers periodically offer special guided hikes to the cliffs to view and learn about pictographs and petroglyphs painted and carved by the First Peoples as well as later carvings made by early homesteaders. Rangers also give special presentations about the First Peoples rock art at the visitor/interpretive center. Interested people can call the park office (406-866-2217) to learn the dates of these events.
September is a special month with two functions that keep both park rangers and residents of the nearby Blackfeet Native American reservation very busy:
- Native American Cultural Fair – Includes such activities as an art show, traditional games, lectures, storytelling, traditional dances and live demonstrations of such things as buffalo hide tanning.
- Atlati Contest – Atlatis are Native American spears. The competition includes Atlati making/carving as well as spear throwing for both accuracy and distance.
History and Contemporary Use of Montana’s First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
The one-mile-long sandstone cliff exhibits clearly visible drive lines while the bottom of the other side of the cliff holds up to as much as 18 feet of compacted buffalo remains. Traditionally called “Ulm Pishkun,” (pishkun is a Blackfeet word for “deep kettle of blood”), archaeologists claim there is evidence that various tribes used the jump site as early as 5,000 years ago but its heaviest use began around 500 A.D.
Native Americans lacked horses before about 1,700 A.D. and they had to use dogs for hunting the American bison. Hunts were difficult and dangerous because of the bison’s huge size and aggressive nature. As a result they learned how to drive a herd up a cliff led by a brave Indian who jumped off the cliff to a narrow ledge that jutted out shortly below. The buffalo followed, leaping over the ledge 30-50 feet to their demise, where they were slaughtered for use as meat, clothing, blankets, weapons and tools.
Various individuals and groups owned the site until 1972 when it was made a Montana State Historical Monument protected and staffed by state park rangers. It was greatly expanded during the 1990s by the purchase and donation of adjoining acreage and turned into a state park in 2000. Improvements included widening of the road leading to the park, the construction of a visitor/interpretive center, hiking trails, and stables for visitor horseback riding. The addition of overnight campsites is currently being considered. All of these changes meant the hiring of additional state park rangers.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park (GNP) covers one million ruggedly scenic acres in Northern Montana. The park, which borders the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, holds 25 active (moving due to melting) glaciers, 130 named lakes, 700 smaller lakes, 200 waterfalls and parts of two mountain ranges.
Called the, “Crown of the Continent, “ it crosses the continental divide at Logan Pass and is a paradise for wildlife of all kinds. Glacier Park International Airport, the gateway to the park, is located six miles from Kalispell, MT.
What Every Would-be Park Ranger Should Know About Glacier National Park
Never too Old to be a Park Ranger at Glacier National Park – Lyle Ruterberies, age 93, is GNP’s oldest ranger. For 20 years, Lyle has enforced the rules at Kintla Lake. He is considered the area’s historian, anthropologist, traffic cop, botanist, and handyman. He is still able to push a wheelbarrow filled with gravel. He believes that doing a job you love at a place of immense beauty is the best of all lives.
Another GNP ranger agrees by saying, “What could possibly be better than preserving our nation’s heritage while living in a home where deer and bears can be seen from your front window?”
History of Glacier National Park – Officially opened on May 11, 1910, the area once held about 150 active glaciers; the 25 remaining s are expected to melt by 2020 if current climate conditions persist. The mountains date back 170 million years and contain fossils of some of the earliest life ever found on earth.
The original human inhabitants first occupied the area about 10,000 years ago. Their ancestors, the Blackfeet and Flathead tribes now live on reservations located in the eastern and southwestern corners of the park respectively. The park’s first chalets and hotels, built by the Northern Railway in the early 20th century, are among the 350 places in the park that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Activities at Glacial National Park – Park rangers are involved in one way or another in almost all activities, including:
- Camping – the park has many campsites for tent or RV camping. Reservations are essential.
- Hiking – There are hundreds of easy to strenuous hiking trials for individuals on their own as well as ranger guided informative hikes.
- Boating – there is an assortment of small boat rentals as well as guided tours on lager boats. Many of these tours offer a close-up view of the glaciers.
- Snowshoeing – The wintertime version of hiking. Snowmobiling is prohibited.
- Bus tours – Tour buses called “Red Jammers” allow less able visitors to see and learn about most of the park.
- Educational – There is a wide variety of interpretive and cultural lectures, campfire talks and cultural tours, including tours of the Blackfeet reservation.
Flora and Fauna at Glacier National Park – Park rangers are dedicated to preserving and protecting all natural and cultural resources. Hunting, logging, mining, and oil or gas extraction are strictly forbidden, as is feeding or harming the animals or removing/picking flowers or plants. Licensed fishing is allowed; however, certain dwindling or endangered species must be thrown back if caught.
GNP has a wide variety of wildlife including but not only:
- Grizzly bears/black bears
- Elk/ Moose Deer/bison
- Mountain lions/bobcats/Canadian lynx
- Bighorn sheep
- Mountain goats
- Bald eagles/golden eagles
- Peregrine falcons
- Ducks, geese/ swans
- Great blue herons
- Hundreds of small bird species
- Painted western turtles
- Garter snakes/rubber boa
Important Areas of Glacier National Park
All of these areas are serviced and protected by park rangers, many of whom specialize in the particulars or activities of a specific area.
- Going-to-the-Sun-Road – The 53-mile road was constructed in the early 1930s to allow automobile access to the center of the park. Designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, it is noted for its spectacular views and there are numerous stopping places of interest along its route. The road crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (little more than halfway). It got its name from nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Part of the road is open all year but the entire 53 miles are only open from mid-June until September.
- North Fork – One of the least crowded areas of the park, it is only accessible by a bumpy dirt road. It offers views of a homesteading site, Bowman and Kintla lakes, forests of different ages and an opportunity to see and hear rare wildlife. Birdwatchers come there from around the world for a chance to see Northern Three-Toed and Black-Backed Woodpeckers. It is necessary to carry lunches because there are almost no concessions.
- International Peace Park – Glacier National Park and Waterton National Park in Alberta, Canada were joined together in 1933 to form an area designated to represent the peaceful relations between the two countries. The world’s first international peace park has been declared a World Heritage Site and UNESCO has designated both independently-operated parks biosphere reserves.
- Goat Haunt – This remote area is located where GNP joins the border with Alberta, Canada. Rangers from both parks greet visitors and together give guided tours of International Peace Park.
- Two Medicine – This lovely wilderness area by Two Medicine Lake is a sacred site to the Blackfeet Indians and near their reservation. It is the starting point for several boat tours as well as ranger guided hikes to spectacular sites like Twin Falls, a split waterfall.
- Triple Divide Peak – Located in the Lewis Range, it is at the hydrological apex of North America where water flows from there into the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Triple Divide Peak (8,020-feet) can be viewed from Going-to-the-Sun Road.
- Lakes – It is noted that some of the park’s 130 named lakes exhibit a unique opaque turquoise color. However, tempting though they may look, only brave swimmers venture into lake waters that never exceed a temperature of 50-degrees Fahrenheit. At 6,823 acres across and 9.4-miles long, Lake McDonalds is GNP’s largest lake.
- Waterfalls – GNP has 200 waterfalls; with a 492-foot drop, Bird Woman Falls is the tallest.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
Lewis and Clark Caverns, Montana’s first and best known state park, is located 17 miles east of the town of Whitehall and 45 miles west of Bozeman. It is one of the largest and most scenic limestone caverns in the northwestern U.S.
The 4,556 square-mile park area sits at an elevation of 4,300 to 5,600 feet. The 3,000-acres of the park that surround the caverns include campsites, camping cabins, and a wide variety of park activities and amenities.
The park is under the jurisdiction of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). Park rangers at Lewis and Clark Caverns are employed by FWP and have a wide variety of functions that require a broad base of knowledge about Montana’s history and natural resources.
What Aspiring Park Rangers Should Know About Lewis and Clark Caverns
The park got its name because it overlooks 50 miles of the Lewis and Clark expedition trail. However, the explorers did not discover the caverns that were first found in 1882 by two residents of Whitehall (Charles Brode and Mexican John). A series of court battles determined that the caverns were owned by the railroad company which turned the site over to the federal government. The caverns were declared a national monument in 1908. In 1927 the federal government transferred ownership to the State of Montana. The site was dedicated as Montana’s first state park in 1941.
The caverns are the park’s main attraction with an average of 50,000 people a year taking a tour. The lighted, naturally air-conditioned caverns display a wonder of stalactites, stalagmites, columns and helictites. Highlights of the two-hour, two-mile tour led by knowledgeable park rangers include the spectacular Cathedral Room and Beaver Slide, an exciting natural rock slide that thrills children of all ages.
Western big-eared bats are permanent residents of the caverns. Unfortunately, their numbers have dwindled from the thousands to about 100 nesting females. The males live in nearby caves. Park rangers give talks about these interesting creatures and visitors can also learn more about them from interpretive displays in the visitor centers or books in the gift shop.
The park outside the caverns provides all of the following facilities and activities:
- 40 camping sites, three camping cabins, one camping teepee
- 10 miles of hiking trails
- Mountain biking trails
- Picnic areas
- Fishing in the Jefferson River
- Two visitor centers
Park rangers maintain the safety and security of the entire park.
Park Ranger Duties and Responsibilities at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
Duties/responsibilities at Lewis and Clark Caverns include:
- Collect entry and other fees (Montanans have free entry)
- Distribute maps, give directions, answer questions
- Work in the two visitor centers answering questions
- Lead tours of caverns
- Give educational lectures/Friday night programs*
- Lead guided hikes
- Maintain security
- Provide emergency medical assistance
- Patrol hiking and biking trails
- Be sure fishing/hunting regulations are followed
- Conserve natural resources
- Monitor wildlife/assist injured animals
- Plan and organize special interpretive events
*Park rangers present an assortment of Friday evening programs during the summer season. Their talks cover a wide range of topics, including Ranger Tom Forwood’s popular program titled, “Can I Eat This?” Other topics might include, Cowboy Songs, Park History, Plant Identification, Travels of Lewis and Clark, American Frontier Firearms or Native American Music.
The following are some of the special interpretive events organized and presented by park rangers at Montana’s Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park:
- Stargazing – Campers are invited to learn about the stars using the park’s large reflecting telescope
- Bat Week – One week in August is devoted to programs and tours focused on “The Misunderstood Bat.”
- Birding Day – One day every June is devoted to an all-day tour of the park’s bird habitats Attention is given to both the unusual and the common birds that make Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park their home.