The Bison Range, formerly the National Bison Range, is a wildlife preserve with a herd of 350 to 500 bison located in western Montana.
Theodore Roosevelt created this preserve in 1908 as the National Bison Range with the help of the American Bison Society. However, the Bison Range land was appropriated on the Flathead Reservation without the consent of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation (CSKT).
The Bison Range is an early example of conservation of the bison and the efforts at this site were critical to preserving the bison. Indeed, the historic range of the bison included nearly two-thirds of North America. By the 1880s, it is estimated that only about 1,000 bison remained. Initiatives such as the establishment of the Bison Range were critical to the survival of this species.
You can visit the Bison Range and explore an excellent example of wildlife conservation. It preserves one of the most endangered ecosystems: the intermountain bunchgrass prairie. In addition to bison, you will find several species of mammals, including coyote, black bear, elk, mule and white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep and pronghorn.
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Checking Out the Visitor Center of Bison Range
Your first stop when visiting the Bison Range is the Visitor Center. The visitor center does a great job highlighting the history of the range, including the Tribe’s first push to preserve bison in the 1870s.
The first thing you will note when checking out the exhibits is the emphasis placed on the ownership of the land. When the Bison Range was created in 1908, the land, approximately 18,000 acres, was supposedly purchased by the Federal Government without compensation or speaking to the tribe.
The CSKT had been pushing to regain control of the Bison Range from the US Fish and Wildlife Service since the 1970s. In 2022, the CSKT began its first full year of managing the Bison Range. The biggest fundamental change for visitors is the fee increase for visiting the preserve. With no Federal tax dollars to subsidize the management of the land, the entrance fee is now $20 per car.
Once you pay your entrance fee, you are ready to explore the Bison Range.
Driving Red Sleep Mountain Drive
There are three roads in the range: the brief West Loop, the one-way Red Sleep Mountain Drive and the two-way Prairie Drive. Red Sleep Mountain Drive is a narrow gravel road that starts out meandering around the mountain but then begins winding and twisting its way up to the peak of Red Sleep Mountain.
Take your time driving this road. You never know when you will spot wildlife. As we drove, we spotted several bull bison hanging out, doing their thing. We also spotted two different pairs of mule deer bucks. The first pair came running by our car before we even realized they were there.
You can get out of your car to take pictures but you must remain close to it and if there is any traffic on the road, you have to either find a pullout or keep going.
As you start ascending the mountain, the road narrows a bit and becomes a lot more curvy. After the curviest section is done, you will find the first of two short trails in the range. These are the only places you can leave your vehicle.
Getting to the Top of Red Sleep Mountain
When we got to the Bitterroot Trail, we stopped for a moment, considering whether we wanted to do the hike. Normally, we would. Alas, we were driving to Yellowstone National Park that day, so time was a consideration.
That’s when we saw the bear.
It was a black bear, on the smallish size, enjoying a morning stroll through the trees, looking for food. We stopped to take some pictures of the bear from a distance, staying with our vehicle the entire time. Zoom lenses make for much closer shots! Afterward, we decided that discretion was the better part of valor when it came to hiking that particular trail on that day.
We continued to the top of the mountain where we took a moment to make use of the facilities (the only restrooms on the road), check out the views and read about Glacial Lake Missoula. Glacial Lake Missoula was an Ice Age lake formed by an ice dam about 12,000 years ago. The lake was nearly 2,000 feet deep and Red Sleep Mountain was just a low island in this massive lake. You can see exceptional views from just about every direction from the top and there is another short hiking trail there as well.
Connecting Red Sleep Mountain Drive with Prairie Drive
As you leave the top of the mountain, you start to descend and the road gets pretty steep with some tight curves but not as bad as coming up. You will come down to Antelope Ridge, where we did not see any pronghorns, unfortunately.
Eventually, the road merges with Prairie Drive, which is a two-way road exploring the flat area at the base of the mountain. We had been warned by the staff of the visitor center that there was a lot of elk in the area and the elk rut was in full swing.
Honestly, we did not see a single elk. Even at Yellowstone National Park in the following few days, we saw far fewer elk than we normally do. I think we missed the rut by about a week (we visited the third week in September). The folks at the visitor center said in the week previous, they had 20-30 photographers lined up in the area taking photos. We did not see one.
And, while we did see one of the small herds of bison, it was from a long distance, even for the zoom lenses we had. Yep, our visit was a stark reminder that wildlife is unpredictable. We saw only a handful of individual bison and this one distant herd during our two-hour visit to the Bison Range.
Indeed, the only wildlife we saw in the Mission Creek area was a pair of white-tailed deer and a few bull bison just hanging out.
Ironically, Bison Range buts up against Hwy 93 and we saw two different herds of bison from the highway, after exiting the park.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Bison Range
First and foremost, the Bison Range is an excellent wildlife preserve and the CSKT is doing a great job, as far as we can see. While its primary mission is preserving bison, many different animals call this land home. As such, it is worth the visit. Our biggest regret is we only had time to drive the loop one time. I would have liked to drive it a second time to see if any more wildlife had popped out.
This is especially a great stop if you have been visiting Glacier National Park or Missoula and do not have any intention on visiting Yellowstone National Park. The Bison Range is simply an excellent place to see wildlife. And, the landscape is pretty spectacular as well!
Still, if you are visiting Yellowstone National Park, I would not say that the Bison Range is a must-see addition to your itinerary. While the Bison Range is excellent and worth the stop, Yellowstone NP is just on a whole different level, wildlife-wise.
Overall, though, we enjoyed our visit and I am looking forward to visiting again in a different season to see if we can spot more wildlife and spend some time on the two trails.
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