National Bison Range, Montana

 

Driving from Kalispell to National Bison Range

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.

National Bison Range Sign

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!

National Bison Range Deer

National Bison Range Whitetail Deer

 

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.

 

National Bison Range Auto Tour Loop

National Bison Range Views

 

Soon enough, we spotted our first Bison along the stream!

National Bison Range Bison

 

We started seeing bison all along the lower slopes near the water!  In the picture below you can spot both deer and bison.

National Bison Range Views (2)

Each curve around the mountain brought a new surprise.  We spotted a single cow (female) elk…

National Bison Range Elk (2)

Little did we know that she was leading a herd! They quickly crossed the ridge and gave us some great views.National Bison Range Elk (3)

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.

National Bison Range Elk (4)

 

Pronghorn antelope were also lounging and feeding on some of the less steep ridges.

National Bison Range Pronghorn (2)

 

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.

National Bison Range Pronghorn

National Bison Range Pronghorn (3)

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!

National Bison Range binocular viewing

A few of them were rubbing on this giant rock.  I’m sure dropping their winter coats gets a little itchy!

National Bison Range Bison rubbing

 

This big bull was sitting quietly watching over the herd.

National Bison Range bull bison

 

Bogie desperately wanted to go run but dogs aren’t allowed off leash on the Bison Range (for good reason!)

National Bison Range Bison Viewing

 

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.

National Bison Range Elk (5)

 

One of my favorite things in the world: elk butt!

 

 

National Bison Range Elk butt

We also some some waterfowl including Canada geese feeding in the stream below the elk.

National Bison Range Canada Goose

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.

National Bison Range duck collage

Little Merganser didn’t stand a chance!

National Bison Range Hooded merganser and Mallard

 

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.

National Bison Range Coyote

 

After the tour loop we stopped in at the Visitor’s Center, which is only open from 10am-2pm during the winter season.

National Bison Range visitor's center (6)

There was a giant full-body mount of a bison, along with a fresh elk shed, picked up that morning by a staff member!

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (3)

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.

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (2) National Bison Range Visitor's Center

 

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!

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (4)

 

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!

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (5)

 

 

 

 

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Pennsylvania Elk

Earlier this week I was in DuBois, Pennsylvania for the 2011 Eastern Elk Management Workshop. Every year elk scientists and managers of elk in eastern states meet to discuss current elk herd statuses and research. I attended last year when it was held in Knoxville, TN as a first-year grad student. This year I got to return and present my research project. It was such a fantastic trip and I feel so lucky to be in elk research. Talking to elk biologists from around the eastern US gave me an incredible opportunity to get a feeling for how my research fits into the big scheme of things. Along with technical presentations, socializing and discussing elk management, we also got the chance to see some Pennsylvania elk up close. Elk can be easily seen at dawn and dusk hours from the many observation outlooks on Winslow Hill in Benezette, PA.

Elk were completely extirpated from the Eastern US in the late 1800’s. Many states reintroduced elk herds including Arkansas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Today there are approximately 800 elk roaming Penn’s Woods. You can read more about the history of PA elk on the Game Commissionwebsite. Today’s reintroductions and management would not be possible without the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (so if you love to see elk in the wild, consider becoming a member!)

In Pennsylvania, reclaimed coal strip mines make up a lot of the state game land elk habitat. PA Game Commission along with other partners put a HUGE amount of work into transforming carved out mountaintops into habitat that is lush and alive.

It’s quite beautiful but they are still dealing with (and will be for decades) water seeping from the old mines. This water is very high in Iron and the pH is around 2-3 which is too acidic for for anything to live in the streams. Through lime enhancement and settling ponds, the Game Commission has brought life back to some streams and downstream there are successful bass and trout fisheries!

The Game Commission has also helped to create a wetland complex, which was currently being utilized by some mallards and Canada Geese.

Recently opened is the new Pennsylvania Elk Country Visitor’s Center.

It is absolutely the most beautiful elk center in the east. Looks like it belongs in Yellowstone!

With a trail system, panoramic views of elk country, a fireplace, “4D” theater, interactive displays, and a room full of antlers, hides, and other hands-on elk stuff this Visitor’s Center continually took my breath away!

Towards the end of the afternoon we started to see some elk through the haze.

Signs warn observers to keep their distance.

This cow was rather interested in our giant bus!

This tagged and collared beauty was standing just inside the tree line.

On our last stop of the day we got to see a big herd grazing. I had a great time in PA! Everyone was super nice and enthusiastic. And seeing elk is always a great pleasure!