If you are heading south down US 93, turn at the sign south of Ronan and follow MT 212 through Charlo to Moiese. If you are heading north up US 93, don’t keep following the US 93 around the east of the Bison Range, as the entrance is on the other side. Take the railroad overpass at Ravalli, head west along MT 200 to Dixon, then turn north onto Montana 212 to Moiese.
Best time to visit
In spring (April-May) when cavorting calves steal the show. In October to witness the drama of an authentic buffalo roundup, when cowboy rangers thin the herd.
NOTE: Motorcycles and bicycles are not allowed on any of the gravel roads but do have access to the Visitor Center and the bison display pasture.
NOTE: Large motor homes (over 32 feet) are not allowed on Red Sleep Mountain Drive, due to the steepness of the road and the tight switchbacks.
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About the Author
Anne Maxwell is a native of Australia who has taken up residence in the Northwest.
by Anne Maxwell, Author
"An Aussie in America"
One of the richest wildlife experiences in the Northwest might easily remain a chance happening for those unfamiliar with the area, but for word-of-mouth publicity like this article. With 250,000 visitors per year, the National Bison Range is receiving more visitors than it can comfortably handle and so does not advertise its existence. On the day we were there, it certainly seemed a vast, tranquil space, but apparently we had just missed a school group!
Self-guided Auto Tour
The Bison Range is basically experienced via a self-guided tour in your own vehicle on a choice of paved or well-graded gravel one-way loops through the 18,000 plus acres. Our choice was the 19-mile Red Sleep Mountain Loop. This takes about two hours, and you need to allow time to get through an entire circuit as they are designed to be driven the whole way. The other, Buffalo Prairie Drive, is a four mile loop of about a half hour near the Visitor Center.
I highly recommend a stop in the well-appointed Visitors Center before driving out to see the bison. We found that the ecological displays and knowledgeable and friendly park rangers set up our tour to be a great experience. Prominent in the exhibits is a three-dimensional relief map, about six-foot square, which showed us accurately with lit bulbs where to expect to see the bison that day.
At the Center you can learn about this species, and in doing so, about a shameful part of American history. The slaughter to near extinction of the bison is powerfully illustrated on a wall about twelve-foot square, covered with hundreds of tiny dots. Each dot represents a thousand bison and the total number of dots represent the estimated number prior to the 1800s. Look for the single dot that is circled. (Imagine circling just one letter on this page.) This represents the number of bison left in the wild by the time white men had finished their slaughter. (In addition to wild bison there were some on private property.) As you stand aghast before the photos of mountainous piles of carcasses, you may wonder what could have motivated such destruction. Surely not just an ignorant belief in an endless resource? Part of the answer is a chilling one. The elimination of the bison was a strategy for eliminating the native Americans.
Knowledgeable Rangers offer History and Safety Tips
We were curious about the current interactions between humans and bison and were enlightened by our friendly ranger. Like cattle, bison management requires tagging and checking for disease and other such procedures. So as part of their work, rangers get pretty close to the bison, rounding them up on specially trained horses to herd them into the coral. The rangers get to know bison behavior well enough to know if an animal is about to charge. We were reassured that only one tourist has been gored in the decades the Range has been in operation, and this because a couple disobeyed the instruction to stay in their vehicle. It wasn't until we were back in the car that we noted the qualification that only one tourist had been gored. What about the rangers, we wondered?
Contemplating the situation of Bison today brings home the fact that the Northwest is unlikely ever again to see the thundering spectacle of huge herds of migrating bison. In talking with the ranger, we were informed that this range is managed so the number of animals remains around 370 going into the winter season. I didn't ask how this was achieved given that the number increases each spring, but I did notice bison jerky is on sale in nearby Moiese! There obviously is no practical way to get the numbers back up to anything like they once were. While it doesn't take more grass to raise a bison than it does a cow, the Palouse Prairie, a type of grassland enclosed within the range, is in fact an endangered ecosystem itself. As we began our drive, I wondered if the eons of galloping across the plains have left instinctual traces that cause these bison to feel hemmed in and isolated. The herds we saw, however, were not straining at the outer fences in the direction of past migrations. We found them moving in a uniform slow motion on a seemingly endless landscape of huge rolling mountains that could be hills but for their scale.
Beautiful Scenery and Close Encounters
This brings me to the other enjoyment to be had at the Range - the scenery. The Loop gains 2000 feet in elevation and magnificent views are to be had of the sea of mountains rolling away in every direction. The 10,000-foot peaks of the Mission Mountains can be seen to the east. There are picnic areas, and hiking trails, with clear instructions as to where you can and can't be out of your car. I should also mention that bison are not the only large animals you are likely to see. There also are about 150 elk, 100 pronghorn antelope, deer which wander tamely near the picnic tables, about 50 bighorn sheep, and about 50 reclusive mountain goats.
Our tour of the Bison Range also gave us an example why it is worth paying heed to the instructions to keep near your vehicle. Soon into our circuit of the Range, we came to a halt behind a car which had stopped to view a herd of bison high up on a hill to the right of the road. Three other cars were soon parked behind us. We were all focused on the herd to the right of the cars. The herd was perhaps half a mile away and we needed binoculars to clearly see the individual animals. The driver from the car in front got out of his car and stood beside his open door to better use his binoculars and take photos. I likewise was engrossed from within our car. A cloud of dust rising up around a wallowing bison held my attention. We later noted many patches along the road which looked like well-used dust baths.
Suddenly, Jack nudged my arm and I looked to the left of the road where he was excitedly pointing. Not ten yards to the left of the cars was a huge animal. He/she (with their bulk they all give me the first impression of being "he's") was drinking from a pond that had formed in a ditch just below road level. It raised its head and took us in with a long look. I assumed it was just taking a while to process the fact of our presence in its prehistoric head, and expected any moment it would gallop off like the antelope do when you get too close.
Instead, it slowly made its way around the pond and headed straight for us! It kept coming right on and I couldn't fathom its intent. I was wishing rather badly that we had gotten more detail from the ranger about the body language of a bison about to make a charge. While intently observing this animal, I was anxious about Jack keeping the car window down to get a photo, and aware that the man outside his car was blissfully unaware of the action behind him. Just when I thought Jack was about to get his head bitten off, the great animal slightly changed direction as if it had the car behind us in its sights. Then with great deliberation this marvelous beast lumbered between the cars and crossed the road to what we could now see was a bison path that lead up the hill. Phew! So, we were simply parked across its path, and no charge was intended!
I wonder if we interrupted its drinking. In retrospect, it seems this great animal was so disdainful of our presence that it was hardly bothered by us. There was no dramatic encounter with the man out of his car. However this little scene tells me that despite their size, these animals can pop up anywhere when you are not used to looking for them. For the rest of our drive I was on the lookout for trails across the grass as a sign that bison might be near, but this was the closest we came.
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