Places We Protect

Cross Ranch Preserve

North Dakota

Bison in the distance silhouetted against a dark sky.
Cross Ranch Bison American Bison at Cross Ranch in Oliver County, North Dakota, along one of the few free-flowing stretches of the Missouri River. © Richard Hamilton Smith

Cross Ranch is located along the only free-flowing section of the Missouri River in North Dakota.



Why You Should Visit

Cross Ranch is located along the only free-flowing section of the Missouri River in North Dakota. The river is bordered by some of the most extensive floodplain forests left in the state. Farther away from the river are uplands that are covered by mixed-grass prairie that is similar to what was viewed by Lewis and Clark when the Corps of Discovery passed through the area in 1804. Although the natural flow of the river has been greatly altered by the operation of Lake Sakakawea, several endangered species are found in the river and along its banks. Least terns, piping plovers and fall-migrating whooping cranes still use the sandbars in the river, Pallid sturgeon cruise its channels and bald eagles fish the waters.


Cross Ranch is located adjacent to Cross Ranch State Park about 30 miles north of Mandan or about seven miles south of Washburn. It is situated on the west bank of the Missouri River and the adjacent hills.


The total size of Cross Ranch is 5,593 acres, 4,953 of which are owned by TNC. The ranch is broken into three main units. The 1,840-acre north unit is located on the banks of the Missouri River and borders Cross Ranch State Park. The central unit consists of 2,300 acres and is located in the Missouri River hills above the floodplain. The south unit is 1,440 acres in size, also located in the Missouri River hills, and is about three miles south of the central unit.

Why TNC Selected This Site

Initially, the riparian cottonwood forests along one of the few free-flowing stretches of the Missouri River in North Dakota was the feature that was of most scientific interest. Later the significance of the mixed grass prairie system within one of the largest untilled landscapes in central North Dakota was also recognized.




5,593 acres

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What to See: Plants

Three main natural communities are found at Cross Ranch. Adjacent to the Missouri River and within its former floodplain are riparian woodlands and forest. This community is dominated by declining populations of cottonwoods and willows. These species need regular flooding to reproduce and renew themselves, but current management of the river's flow regime largely precludes spring flooding events. Green ash, boxelder and American elm are increasing in abundance as the cottonwoods die off.

In the adjacent hills, mixed grass prairie dominates. The major prairie grasses include needle and thread, blue grama, junegrass, little bluestem and buffalograss. Even in the best prairies, there are also a number of exotic grasses, most notably smooth brome, crested wheatgrass and Kentucky bluegrass.

The third major community type is the ravine woodland community. This is an extremely important habitat for prairie wildlife species. It occurs primarily along seasonal draws of prairie slopes and is dominated by shrubs and small trees. The most common species include burr oaks, buffaloberry, hawthorn, boxelder, quaking aspen, American elm and basswood.

What to See: Animals

TNC maintains bison herds in the central and south units of Cross Ranch. These bison are wild animals and should not be approached. They can be viewed at a distance or from across fence lines.

Birdwatchers should look for Sprague's pipit and Baird's sparrows, both declining grassland species. Other rare animals include butterflies such as the ottoe skipper and regal fritillary. Cross Ranch State Park is located immediately adjacent to TNC's Cross Ranch Preserve and can be a good base for a visit to the ranch. Minimal facilities are available there. There are no public facilities available at Cross Ranch headquarters. Supplies and gas can be purchased in Washburn about seven miles north of the ranch.

Hunting and Fishing Activities

Check out our Preserve Visitation Guidelines for more information about TNC's hunting and fishing policies on North Dakota preserves. Download the 2022 hunting permit for Cross Ranch, which includes rules and a map specific to Cross Ranch. 

Find More Places We Protect

The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.

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Photos from Cross Ranch

The prairie is buzzing, blooming and stomping with life!

A herd of bison stand against a rainbow grassland backdrop.
Closeup of a hoary puccoon, a delicate yellow flower.
Three bison stand together on a prairie.
Landscape view of the rolling forested hills of Cross Ranch.
A grove of cottonwood trees stands in the distance with blurred grassland in the foreground.
A broad field of gray-headed coneflower.
Four bison on a snowy prairie.
The Missouri River at sunset, with grass-lined banks.
Closeup of a sharp-tailed grouse.
A bison stands in a grassland at sunset.

Support Our Work at Cross Ranch

You can help us protect North Dakota's diverse plant and animal communities. Make a donation now to help us further our work to protect land and water, provide food and water sustainably, and tackle climate change.