National Bison Range

National Bison Range

I’m at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Bison Range, formerly the National Bison Range in Montana. In 2020, the US government returned the 18,766-acre range and its bison, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, to the local tribes. It is now called the CSKT Bison Range and is locally managed.

Just past the visitor’s center, two pronghorn bucks called for a detour. The short prairie loop takes me right past these two as they graze across the plain. They are North America’s fastest land animals that evolved to outrun saber-toothed tigers. They’ve been around a long time and are so exotic looking.

Red Sleep Mountain Drive

Back on the main drag, I take the Red Sleep Mountain Drive up the hill. It’s a one-way, seasonal road that cautions drive at your own risk: no guard rails, steep drop-offs; stay in your car. The road climbs around the side of the mountain, offering expansive views of the Flathead River, then drops back down into a valley. The lane follows a small creek thick with bushes and songbirds. A lone white-tail doe is high up on a far hillside.

A visitor center map had stickers indicating where animals were seen today. The first two stickers were bison along the road I’m on, and bison were sacked out in those exact spots! The next sticker is a bear. I’m optimistic!

Bitterroot Trail

At the bitterroot trailhead, a cluster of 6-8 people with cameras and binoculars are looking off into the woods. (This is just past the bear sticker on the map). A woman said there was a bear with two cubs that she’d lost sight of behind a tree as they were heading downhill. I stopped to look, but couldn’t find them. A family, getting ready to depart, says, “well, since there’s a grizzly bear with a cub around, we probably shouldn’t hike this trail.” They left, and that’s exactly what I did.

The first part of the trail cuts across a slope full of arrowleaf balsamroot. I must come back in the spring when they’re in bloom (if the road opens in time, I’m at 45oo feet, and the road doesn’t open until Mother Nature clears the snow). It must be spectacular!

I have the trail to myself. A lone bison rests in a wallow far below. A few bitterroots are still in bloom, reminiscent of crocuses with their sinewy stamens. The yellow salsify has mostly gone to seed. I spent a lot of time photographing them – while looking over my shoulder for bears. The views from this ridge of the Bitterroot Mountain range are breathtaking.

As I head back up the trail, the path rises and curves over a hill before dropping back to the parking lot where the bears were. It’s a blind curve. “Hey, bear! Just a friendly human here. Hey, bear!”  I talk as I crest the hill to find all of the people have departed. I wander over to the side of the road and find a cinnamon black bear foraging down the mountain a bit. “Hey, bear!” I quip to be sure she knows I’m here. She’s a “park bear, ” used to having an audience, glances in my direction, and continues on her way. As I watched her browse, her black spring club frolicked into view. The cub acts carefree as she plays a fair distance from her mom. Confident mother. Confident cub. They start up the hill to the road where I’m standing. I retreated to my car and waited for them to crest the hill and appear roadside. They didn’t come up to the road, and I can’t see down the hill from where I am. Not knowing where they went and the potential for them to be in a place where I would be way too close before seeing them, I decided it was best to let them be.

Mission Valley

Glacial Lake Missoula
The valley that was glacial Lake Missoula with the Rocky Mountain Range in the background.

The next pullout, Highline, was crowded with cars and hikers, so I drove by, even though this is where the second bear sticker was on the park map. From here, the trail switchbacks down 1600 feet over three miles to the Mission Valley, the site of glacial Lake Missoula. I try not to ride my brakes the whole way down.

Bison Bison Bison

Herds of bison are on the prairie – old, worn bulls and fresh, new, red calves. They are milling about, wandering, wallowing, and grazing. I love the moptop on this big, old guy.

Mission Creek

I made a quick stop at a pond and Mission Creek. Another warning sign. I didn’t see any elk, angry or otherwise, but I did see two white-tailed bucks bedded down about twenty feet from the trail. They were very tolerant—Park deer. I also found an adorable, wary groundhog in the picnic area.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll make another loop before heading back home. I spent the night at a nice hotel at the Nine Pipe Wildlife Refuge.

Nine Mile National Wildlife Refuge
Nine Mile National Wildlife Refuge

The Next Morning

The Bison Refuge opens at 7 am. I was there just past seven and was surprised to see a few vehicles ahead of me on the road. I drove the Red Sleep Mountain Drive again, seeing some bison along the way.

This morning, there are chipmunks all over the road. Unlike most places, when I stop my car here, they don’t flee. Since people aren’t supposed to get out of their cars except at the designated trails, a stopped vehicle doesn’t predict danger in the way it does in so many other places. And people are always stopping to look at things on this road, so it’s not unusual for a car to stop. I could pop out my sunroof and photograph a few of them. 

The Highline Trail

I bypassed the visitor’s center this morning, so I don’t know where the bear stickers are today, and I didn’t see any bears. I hiked the Highline trail I’d skipped yesterday with its songbirds, wildflowers, and incredible views. The sign on the trailhead cautioned to stay near your car, but it didn’t say the trail was closed. “Near” is relative, so off I went. I had the path all to myself this morning.

Panoramic from the top of the Highline trail.

Mission Creek Wallowing

Back down in the prairie, a large herd of bison was escaping the heat in Mission Creek, bellowing and wallowing. They are surprisingly chatty with rumbles, bellows, grunts, and snorts in a language all their own.

The whole herd slowly crossed the road and headed into the creek. They didn’t stay long before seeking a shady place to nap.

I stopped by the pond again on my way out. It’s midday now, and no one is around. I bought the annual pass ($20 versus $10 for a day pass), so I’m motivated to come back in different seasons.

Side note: I’m wearing my hiking sandals again. I’ve learned my rattlesnake lesson and stayed on the sidewalk at the visitor’s center.

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3 Replies to “National Bison Range”

  1. The bitterroot is really pretty, light lilac, airy and light. Had to chuckle at “park dear” and “park bears”. Lots of wonderful bison pictures!! I love the rolling hills and valleys in the country you have access to now.

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