When I first arrived at the National Bison Range the first thing I noticed was an encompassing bold, bright sky & low lying yellow prairie grass. But that would be on the second day. The first day was different. After arriving in Kalispell, we zipped up our jackets bracing ourselves against 43 degrees of pounding cold rain. After some minor troubles getting our Jeep & a latte, we drove by strip mall after strip mall until we found a grocery store near our Holiday Inn Express. Exhausted, we wound our way down the aisle loading up food items for lunches & aimed the vehicle toward our hotel destination. Inside the lobby a crackling fire roared and the entire room was decked out for Halloween, complete with cobwebs, witches and hot apple cider. The comfy bed & shower were a welcome sight as we faced a two- hour drive to the National Bison Range the next day.
We woke up to more biting cold but it was clear. Dawned our wool clothes, jackets & boots and walked to our vehicle. The windows were frozen. We started up the engine & heater. After making sure all camera equipment was charged and ready, & the windows were thawed, we headed to Starbucks for fuel. Wide awake now, we set out on our journey to the range. Much of the time was spent driving past Flathead Lake and grimacing over 10 dead deer along the winding road. They had been hit by cars, entrails picked apart by birds of prey.
When we arrived at the Visitor Center nestled in 18,000 plus acres we saw nothing but prairie grass, hills & mountains, as far as the eye could see. A large tree of antlers stood by the entrance. I would recommend going in. There are relief maps with tiny dots that let you know where you might see bison that day. I stood mesmerized by a photo of the last white buffalo that had been at the bison range. He was gray white, definitely surreal- ghost like with pale blue eyes. Then I turned and starred into the dark brown eyes of a preserved buffalo. The size of the head took my breath away.
We chose to take the bumpy, 2 hour rutted drive through the Red Sleep Mountain Loop – camera ready. As we started driving and finding buffalo scattered about, there was one thing for certain. It was highly unlikely that in the Northwest, the thundering spectacle of huge herds of migrating bison were ever to return.
Instead, I found them moving in a uniform slow motion on a seemingly endless landscape of huge rolling mountains. This was not a scary encounter at all as is seen on YouTube, but a sad one. A terrible thought crossed my mind. Maybe in the late 1800’s we eliminated the buffalo down to 100 in order to extinguish the American Indian. Periodically I did get out of my car to take photos, and I shouldn’t have, but I stayed next to the door, using the window as a tri pod. After watching the buffalo resting in the grass, not even looking in our direction, it was hard to imagine how dangerous they can be. When their tail is up they’re ready to charge – up to 35 miles an hour. With that in mind, I jumped back into the car.
The Bison Range is a home to many other animals as well; Pronghorn Antelope, deer, elk, sheep and mountain goats. It wasn’t unusual to be looking at the vast scenery in front of us, turn, and within 20 feet be able to photograph antelope or deer, quiet and proud. All I saw that day were quiet & proud animals. The fact that we can still see bison on the landscape is one of the finest accomplishments in the history of the National Wildlife Refuge system.
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