National Bison Range

After a wonderful twenty months exploring abroad, we finally had the chance to do some exploring in our own back yard. After visiting a friend in Missoula, MT, we headed north towards Glacier National Park. Before we reached those hallowed hills, however, we absolutely had to visit the last bastion of a national icon.

The National Bison Range is located about half way between Missoula and Glacier NP, and is (and I don’t say this often) an absolutely positively must stop if you are ever in western Montana. This particular park is a one of a kind piece of American history as it houses on of the last herd of genetically pure plains bison in the world. It also happens to be spectacularly beautiful.

The whole park is covered in high golden grass and dotted with individual and small copses of tress. A hill dominates much of the park, allowing for some fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The Mission valley forms the northern border of the park, and on the other side of the valley are the rocky and beautifully snow dappled Mission Mountains. The rugged, white topped peaks on one side, and the natural golden beauty of the parks plains form a gorgeous contrast for the green patched farm lands that spread through out the massive glacier formed valley in between.

The first place you go when you enter the park is the visitor center (duh). Here they have a full size replica of a bison (or a taxidermy bison, not sure which and I didn’t touch it), a small bison museum, and numerous other info graphics and information panels describing things ranging from the bison biology and ecology, to native hunting, to Euro-American expansion and its effects of the region. It also has some history on the park itself and why and how it was put aside for conservation. This is also where you pay… [1]

The park offers two routes to take, short or long. Take the long one; it is well worth it. We got our first glimpse of a bison at the fork. It was probably a hundred yards up the hill and at first we thought it was a rock it was laying so still. From the fork the roar winds slowly up the hill, past a dry stream bed filled with vegetation. Here we got rather lucky as another single bison (we are guessing the solitary ones were younger bulls) laying amongst the tall grass just off the side of the road. Again it was so still and looked so much like a part of the landscape I almost didn’t see it. It is amazing how well such a large creature can blend in.

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A bit further up the hill there was a small group of mule deer grazing just off the side of the road. They are quite accustomed to cars, so one could sit there and watch them from no more then five feet away. One of them was a buck with a decent looking rack. It has been a long time since I have seen anything more then a yearling buck, so this was a treat.

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At the top of the hill there are a few short (1/2 mile and 1 mile) trails that take you to some viewpoints. I would recommend doing at least one of them while your there. The views were lovely. I would also recommend stopping at the info graphic near the bathrooms and taking a good long look over the mission valley, especially after reading some of its history. It is a truly breathtaking view.

Coming down the hill held another surprise for us. Half a dozen big horn sheep were within easy view as they rested amongst the waving grass. Though we spotted them much easier then we did the laying bison, their golden color does allow them to blend in quite well. Their large curling horns look fearsome and their short hair shows off their muscular bodies. They are certainly more majestic then their domesticated counterparts.

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Once we got down to the lower section, we met up with the two-lane road that comprises the short route. As we wound along the lower road we were greeted with another wonderful site. A male pronghorn was attempting to woo a female. He would grunt a little then move closer to the female, who of course would move a bit further away. We watched them play their game for a few minutes before they disappeared over a small rise. Though seeing the closest thing we have to wild bison was a treat, I have seen them before on ranches in varying states, I have never seen pronghorns before. For this novelty alone the trip was worth it. We were also given an interesting little factoid about the American Pronghorn from a friend of ours involved in conservation in Montana; the pronghorn’s closest living relative is actually the giraffe.

Unfortunately, the one bison herd we saw was too far away from any section of the road to get a really good look. One thing the distance did do though it put their size a bit more into perspective. Even at a distance of a hundred yards plus they looked big. You could easily see the difference in sizes between some of them, so we assume there were calves or adolescents with them. It was a cool sight even if it was farther away then we had hoped. Before exiting the park though we did come across another large male lying in the grass near the road.

Our visit to the National Bison Range was a wonderful experience. We got the chance to see of the amazing wildlife of the Great Plains, a region that is both wonderfully unique and has played such a large role in American history. We also got a chance to experience some of the views provided by a picturesque landscape and an early season snowstorm. I am beyond grateful that I have had the opportunity to experience the natural wonder of this little slice of our nations past.

[1] The price of admission is well worth helping to maintain such a unique place.

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