American Bison once ranked among the most widespread and abundant wildlife in North America -- and certainly the largest. It was unthinkable that bison might vanish, with a range spanning two-thirds of the continent and a population estimated at 40 to 60 million. And yet they nearly did; by 1900 the wild population hovered near 100 and thoughts had turned to conserving the few remaining animals.
In 1908, the National Bison Range was established with 41 captive bison on 19,000 acres of rolling prairie hills, narrow canyons, and forested creek bottoms. The herd has done well; today it is managed for an optimum size of 400, with surplus animals sold off every year. Other large grazers and browsers make use of the site, including Elk, Pronghorn, White-tailed and Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep, and occasional Mountain Goats. The rangeland is composed of now rare Palouse Prairie Bunchgrass. Mission Creek flows down from the hills and through richly forested bottoms of aspens, junipers, birches, and cottonwoods. Blue Grouse inhabit the woodlands, along with Yellow-breasted Chats and Lazuli Buntings, among others.
Start your tour at the visitor center, which has some fine interpretive displays. Viewing out on the range is limited primarily to roads: a 19-mile loop road is open summer through early fall and takes about two hours to complete. There is also a half-hour tour route, open year-round. Bear in mind that this is a wild preserve, not a theme park, and locating most of the larger animals requires patience and a pair of binoculars. Bison are active grazers, and they steadily cover ground as they feed; this means the herds seldom stay in the same area for long. An 800-pound bull Elk bedded down amid sagebrush will become all but invisible save for his antlers poking above the shrubs. Newborn bison calves are a sight to behold from mid-April through May, and Bighorn Sheep visit the grasslands in summer. Birdlife is abundant everywhere; watch for Grasshopper Sparrows in the grasslands, and Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Clark’s Nutcrackers in the upper forested areas. The rugged Mission Mountains form a spectacular backdrop to the grasslands.
Have you been to this park? How many stars would you give it?