On our way from Kalispell and Whitefish to Missoula, we had to stop at the National Bison Range in Dixon, Montana. On our way there, we drove on a smaller road on the east side of the Flathead Lake. Talk about beautiful views! AND we drove through a bunch of cherry tree orchards! I’ve seen “Flathead Cherry” jellies all over the place and we finally found where they come from. Of course being winter the Cherry trees were dormant but I’d love to come back when they are blooming. The drive from Flathead Lake to the Bison Range was full of wetlands and tons of ducks! I wish we had stopped to take some pictures because they were in their beautiful breeding plumage.
The National Bison Range is a National Wildlife Refuge under the stewardship of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (federal government). Historically, Bison were estimated to number between 30-60 million animals. By the 1880’s there were about 100 bison left in North America. The Range was established in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt to provide a permanent home for some of the few remaining bison in United States. The refuge includes over 18,000 acres of wildlife habitat and is home to around 350 bison. The range and the bison are actively managed by US Fish and Wildlife staff.
I highly recommend bringing binoculars if you go to the National Bison Range. While the animals are very well adjusted to humans, having binos will enhance your experience and bring you closer to the wildlife without disturbing them. Note that people are not allowed to leave the tour loop or designated walking trails. Learn more about the National Bison Range and the history of the Bison on their website.
Since we went to the National Bison Range in March which is during their “winter” season, only half of the auto tour loop was open but it was plenty and we spent a few hours seeing the sights.
Before we even got to the tour loop we came across were some white-tail and mule deer. Once we started noticing them, they were everywhere!
The tour loop ran along a ridge of a small mountain (I guess northerners would call it a hill?) which sloped up to our right. Down slope to our left was a stream and wetlands, followed by beautiful farm land, and then gorgeous mountains in the distance.
Soon enough, we spotted our first Bison along the stream!
We started seeing bison all along the lower slopes near the water! In the picture below you can spot both deer and bison.
Each curve around the mountain brought a new surprise. We spotted a single cow (female) elk…
There were even a few spike bulls (young males) mixed in. We learned that the big bulls (older males) stay up in the higher elevations as spring and summer approach.
Pronghorn antelope were also lounging and feeding on some of the less steep ridges.
This buck (male) Pronghorn below gave us plenty of time to get some close-up pictures. Pronghorn have such strange yet beautiful shapes to their face.
The winter tour loop ended at a parking/viewing area. There were a group of bison grazing in the distance so we took a few minutes to watch them through our binoculars and walk the dogs. See those brown dots on the picture below? Those are bison!
A few of them were rubbing on this giant rock. I’m sure dropping their winter coats gets a little itchy!
This big bull was sitting quietly watching over the herd.
Bogie desperately wanted to go run but dogs aren’t allowed off leash on the Bison Range (for good reason!)
On our way back on the tour loop we thought we had seen everything there was to see. Nope! The elk herd that was on the steep slope had crossed the road and moved into the wetlands.
One of my favorite things in the world: elk butt!
We also some some waterfowl including Canada geese feeding in the stream below the elk.
And then we watched a funny interaction between 2 species of ducks. First we spotted a beautiful Hooded Merganser drake (male) relaxing under a tree in the stream. It wasn’t long before a pair of Mallards came swimming down stream. I guess the Mallard drake (male) didn’t like the looks of the Merganser, so he chased him off! I captured it in a few pictures below.
Little Merganser didn’t stand a chance!
The last species we saw was a Coyote, stalking the fields. They blend in so well; if he wasn’t moving we never would’ve seen him.
After the tour loop we stopped in at the Visitor’s Center, which is only open from 10am-2pm during the winter season.
There was a giant full-body mount of a bison, along with a fresh elk shed, picked up that morning by a staff member!
I loved this visual depiction of the historical number of Bison in North American compared to today’s Bison population. The display really gives you an idea of how many Bison we’ve lost. There are just a few “wild” herds left and even they are mostly within parks and wildlife refuges.
Just outside of the visitor’s center was a display holding elk sheds found on the Bison Range. That’s a ton! Each one weighs 20-40 pounds!
We had such a great time in our few hours spent at the National Bison Range. I would love to go back in the summer and fall to see how different everything looks and how different the wildlife behave. This is a can’t-miss stop in Montana!