Story and Photo by Kay Bjork
There is no guarantee when “spring has sprung” in Montana with all the twists and turns of somersaulting weather, but it’s a great time to get out and experience the wonders of rebirth as the area throws off sheets of ice and blankets of snow, as if to say, “I’m up!”
Spring is a dynamic and magical time in the Flathead, perhaps felt more acutely by those who winter here, who weather scraps of daylight and sunshine in the dead of winter and the icy grip that turns into a punching fist with sub-zero temperatures and blustery snowstorms. The spring song varies in tempo, but the score always contains some of the same elements – the air fills with a cacophony of a bird chorus without a conductor. The trickle of creeks builds to a roar, sprigs of lime green grass sprout through mats of unraked leaves and dirty snow patches, and fields become carpeted in green – the song builds to a crescendo with the lift of lengthening days.
Spring is probably the most diverse season – from snowflakes to cherry blossoms – offering a variety of experiences as you venture out to enjoy some of the amazing places in our extended neighborhood before the flood of summer visitors arrive.
National Bison Range
The National Bison Range in Moiese is a great place to see the iconic bison as well as a variety of other wildlife, including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, coyote, muskrat and badger. Spring is a particularly exciting time with the birth of bison calves and other wildlife and the return of a large variety of birds, including mountain bluebirds and western meadowlarks. It is also a great time to watch the brown landscape turn green, spackled with a variety of wildflowers, including arrowleaf balsamroot, yellowbells, lupine, paintbrush and wild rose.
Stop in at the visitor center at the gate where you can visit with the ranger who will fill you in with updates on the location and activity of wildlife in the park. Take some time to view displays about the natural history and conservation of bison; local Native American and refuge history; and a skull and skin collection. An orientation video is shown upon request. Before heading up the road, check out the enormous pile of antler sheds at the gate.
Winter Drive is open from early September to mid-May, a 10-mile roundtrip that allows visitors Mission Creek access exclusively in the winter. Wildlife includes whitetail deer wintering in the creek bottoms and rough-legged hawks hunting the prairie.
You might want to save this outing until mid-May when the main road, Red Sleep Mountain Drive, opens for the summer season in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day (weather and road conditions permitting.)
President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Bison Range on May 23, 1908 when he signed legislation authorizing funds to purchase suitable land for the conservation of bison.
Male buffalo often weigh a ton or more and stand at five to six feet high at the shoulders.
Bison are unpredictable and can be very dangerous. They might appear slow and docile, but these massive animals are actually agile and can run as fast as a horse.
This two-hour self-guided tour through the bison range on a gravel one-way road, with 10 percent grade in places, takes you through grasslands and grazing areas before it winds into forested area up to nearly 5,000 feet. Numbered signs along the road provide information about habitat and natural features. The descent on Antelope Ridge takes you past buffalo wallows and dry dust beds where you might observe bison rolling in the dust to rid themselves of insects. The last portion of the road takes you past the Bison Corrals that provide safe handling during the annual roundup when bison are vaccinated, age-marked and counted.
Wildlife is acclimated to vehicles that travel along the park road so it is easy to get up close and personal, but park officials caution visitors to stay in your car when encountering wildlife for a safe observation point and photographic blind that also minimizes disturbance to wildlife.
There are two walking trails along Red Sleep Mountain and walkers are restricted to these established trails. The Bitterroot Trail is a flat half-mile roundtrip trail strewn with wildflowers in the spring. In June, you can find the bitterroot, the state flower and namesake for the trail. The High Point Trail along the Service Road begins at the Geology Display where you can read about Glacier Lake Missoula before hiking a half mile to gain elevation for a view and maybe even spot bighorn sheep.
Across from the visitor center is a day-use area along Mission Creek with picnic tables, restrooms, and a nature trail providing a great place for a picnic before you leave the refuge.
Along the Way
The Bison Range is located more than an hour from Kalispell, so here are a few options to break up the trip.
Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge
Ninepipe is managed as part of the National Bison Range Complex. After you turn off Highway 93 to 212 to reach the Bison Range, take a tour through this wetland area where you might spot swan, great blue heron, geese, ducks, grebe and other water birds. The nesting areas around the Ninepipe and Pablo reservoirs are closed March 1-July 14.
Miracle of America Museum
Located just south of Polson off Highway 93 on Memory Lane, it advertises, “The Museum contains everything from the walking-plow to walking on the moon.” The museum is a result of over 30 years of collecting by owners Gil and Joanne Mangels and is colossal, so you might want to make sure you have a block of time for this one. Spring hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call for more current information and admission amounts: 406-883-6804.
St. Ignatius Mission
East of the Bison Range and just two blocks off the highway at 300 Beartrack Avenue in the tiny town of St. Ignatius is the 1890s Catholic Church, which is adorned by 58 original paintings by Brother Joseph Carignano. The church is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with mass at 9:15 a.m. on Sundays. There is also a museum and gift shop next to the church.