Missoula MT and the National Bison Range

Labor Day we hung out around the house…Blackwell Island RV Park was strangely not crowded at all even though it was a holiday…we originally had plans to grill some chicken for dinner but about 1500 Nicki called us and wanted to see if we were up for another dinner with them…we had figured that Joe would be too tired after his 100 mile gravel bicycle race on Sunday and the drive back on Labor Day. Apparently he told her he wasn’t so we headed out about 1830 or so…we first tried the floating restaurant Cedars at the Blackwell Island Marina but it was a 45 minute wait so we ended up at a tap house in town. Dinner there was OK…nothing really great but the brews were good and the company was great. It was very smoky on Labor Day though…Coeur d’Alene has several wildfires around it and the smoke was blowing over the city.

Tuesday we headed out early to Missoula MT for a 3 night stay at Jim and Mary’s RV Park site F11…a nice pull through shaded FHU site on the back row. The park is right off of I-90…but is actually pretty quiet. We only had 2 activities scheduled for Missoula…we wanted to eat at the Notorious Pig BBQ which is Montana’s entry on the Southern Living Best BBQ Spot In All 50 States list…we were originally going to visit the museum at the old west fort here…but then Connie spotted the National Buffalo Preserve just about 30 minutes north so that quickly becomes our primary activity for Wednesday.

There’s a lot of smoke here in western MT as well…hopefully it will clear up some when we get over to Yellowstone NP on Friday…it’s s supposed to but we’ll believe it when it happens. We decided not to let this stop us…sure, we wouldn’t get any nice landscape photos…but it is the National Bison Range and down at ground level the visibility was pretty good. We got up to the preserve about 1130 or so and watched the movie…then headed off on the 19 mile unpaved road tour around the Range. Remember though…these are bison, not buffalo like you probably remember from your early education…yes, just like Pronghorn Antelope are not actually antelope at all but more closely related to the giraffe and are officially known as just plain old Pronghorn…the animal formerly known as the buffalo in North America isn’t actually a buffalo at all…it’s a bison of species bison bison to differentiate it from it’s European cousin bison bonasus. Both species of bison, as well as cattle…but strangely enough not buffalos…are descended from the prehistoric bison order bosini.

At one point back in the late 1800s/early 1900s…the American Bison which populated North America in numbers estimated at 300 million…or maybe 30-60 million depending on which estimate you want to believe…anyway, it was a whole lot…had been reduced to about 100 or so individuals when the American Buffalo Society was founded to preserve the species. The Range was established and to this day maintains a herd of 350-500 animals in order to prevent over grazing on the lands of the range. In addition…about another 300,000 or so are owned by private ranchers where they are raised for meat as well as in the possession of researchers. The range encompasses 18,800 acres

We made the drive in about 2.5 hours…had to keep stopping for photo’s ya know as well as for lunch along side the road…then headed home. Our biggest impression was that the range was not really what we thought it would be. Our impression before we went on the drive was that it would be mostly plains, maybe rolling a bit but no real elevation changes to speak of…that was completely wrong as the range varies 2,300 feet ( between the highest (4,885 feet) and lowest (2,585 feet) points. There’s everything from wet, swampy areas alongside the various creeks, upland forest that looks an awful lot like some of the wooded areas in AL where Neil grew up with a large white tail deer population…all the way to grassy plains with scrub brush and pretty sparsely vegetated ridge tops with just grass and very low plants.  On to the photos.

We were completely correct…absolutely no landscape photos at all. Connie took the one below just so we could show you the efforts we go through to get the photos I put in these posts for ya…believe it or not there’s actually a valley down below there and some more ridges on the other side. I’m sure the views would be spectacular if it was a clear day. This shot was taken about halfway through the drive and is sort of out of order…but I wanted ya to be able to appreciate our efforts:-)

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OK, back to regular mostly chronological order as we drove through the park. Photo opportunities were actually pretty good through out our drive…we got all of the major fauna we expected to see…obviously not the black bears, mountain lion, or coyote but they’re pretty scarce and only rarely seen except at dawn or dusk…and we missed the Bighorn Sheep because they’re up on the mountains that we couldn’t see.

Park entrance sign…again, the white sky is not due to being overexposed…it’s all due to the smoke.

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Antler pile outside the visitor center…pretty large stack. As you’re aware…horns are bone and grow continuously over the animal’s life. Some…like the pronghorn…have both a bony core and a softer outside that is shed and regrown each year. Antlers on the other hand…are an annual growth that falls off after the mating season. They grow out from spring to early fall and are soft with blood vessels and covered with velvet. In the early fall they get hard and pointy and the velvet comes off so that the bucks can use them in fighting for the right to mate. After the rut they fall off…and because they are largely calcium…are eaten by small animals like mice, chipmunks and the like pretty quickly…so if you want to collect them you must do it in the late fall because they’re all gone by the spring. I’m sure it took many years to collect this pile…it’s mostly elk antlers although close up Neil could see a few mule deer ones. The pile is about 10 feet high and wide.

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Almost all of these were taken either from inside Big Red or standing just outside it…park regulations require you to stay in your vehicle or behind it so that the animals don’t see your human shape and because both bison and elk can move pretty fast (30 miles per hour) when they want to…and are liable to charge if one gets too close.

Interesting seed pod.

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Golden Eagle…about 90% of the way from juvenile plumage to full adult plumage…it’s carrying a piece of nesting material it looks like. It was really far away…and I had to crop considerably to even get it this large even though Neil used the bird lens at full zoom.

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Our first bison…this is a bull and he’s obviously wearing his ghillie suit to camouflage himself.

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Buffalo patty…the early settlers on the Oregon Trail and other migrations to the west used to burn these for fuel…I don’t see how as it doesn’t look like it has any fibrous stuff in it that would burn…this one is about 10 inches across. I’m not actually sure it’s a buffalo patty and not some other sort of scat…but at that size it’s too big to be anything but bison or bear and bear poop don’t look like that.

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This cow just stared at us from about 6 feet away…you can tell the females as they’re half the weight of the bulls, have smaller less wide horns, and less of a shoulder hump that provides the muscle to hold up the huge bull head that it uses for establishing dominance and mating rights.

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This bull looked like he was thinking about charging us as he also just stared at us…but after we moved along a few yards he just crossed the road behind us. You can really see the bull/cow differences in these two shots.

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Another herd we happened across.

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Giving us the old Evil Eye…another difference between the sexes is that the bull keeps a lot of his winter coat (the thicker lighter brown stuff on the one around the shoulder area) for most of the summer whereas the cows shed all of theirs.

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Couple of doe mule deer we spotted while having lunch…a long way down there. The road they’re next to is about a mile from where we had lunch by road but probably only 300 or 400 yards in a straight line.

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One of the few that we spotted all by himself…most of the bison were in herds of 10-30.

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Doe elk in the river on the latter part of the drive…we originally thought it strange that she was alone.

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Turns out she wasn’t alone…another 50 yards downriver we spotted her harem leader.

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The rest (well part of it anyway) of his harem.

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What a rack…probably 40 inches wide and tall.

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The big bull above bugled which is how they challenge other males…and this young bull came down in response…took a look at the weapons systems on the one above and decided to live to fight another day.

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After moving on from the elk harem…saw this bull laying in his wallow and swishing dust up on himself with his tail.

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Mule deer fawn…obviously this year’s offspring as it hasn’t lost it’s fawn dots yet.

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Another couple of does with the fawn…just about 100 yards downstream from the harem.

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Another cow elk in the background of this one…probably part of the same harem.

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Mom and calf.

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Spotted this pronghorn female just about 20 yards from the road and thought it would be the best shot we got…Neil was out of Big Red standing on top of the aux fuel tank to get as high as possible and she was still down in the grass.

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Another harem a couple hundred yards down the road…although these were out aways, probably 400-500 yards at least.

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And their harem master…bucks and does look pretty much the same except the bucks are somewhat larger and have longer/heavier horns.

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Magpie we spotted on the fence as we drove out of the Range…for a bird of their size they’re amazingly skittish and will rarely sit still long enough for a photo.

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With our day done…we headed home and had chicken for dinner. Thursday was devoted to haircut, nails, groceries, getting some pork from the Notorious Pig BBQ and then working on the blog post and planning for Yellowstone NP. 

Notorious Pig BBQ review. Over all we’re giving it a B- at best. The brisket was delicious…juicy and smokey…even Connie liked it and she’s normally not a big brisket fan. Potato salad was better than average…but not up to Red Hot and Blue (the gold standard) in our old Fairfax VA stomping grounds. Pulled pork was tasty but dry and chewy and really not very pulled…it was more like large chunks and we had to do the pullin’ ourselves. Beans were not good…way too dry, not very much liquid in them, and over spiced to our taste…although they did have nice chunks of pork in them. Staff and service were top notch. They gave us about 6 different kinds of sauce…we tossed the mustard one and the NC vinegar style as not our taste. Tried and dismissed the Texas style one…too hot. The sweet AL/MS style was pretty good although again a bit spicier than we normally would prefer.

Interesting stuff from the net this week.

See what they did there?


And you thought your day was bad.


True…100% true.


Trolling like a boss…from the personals page.



About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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2 Responses to Missoula MT and the National Bison Range

  1. Cat White says:

    As always, great photos. Your pictures always make me feel that I’ve been right there on the best part of the trip. Thanks.

    • Neil Laubenthal says:

      I hate to say it…but I’m afraid we’re getting a little jaded. Touring through Yellowstone NP today and we spotted a bison about 50 yards from the road with 20 cars stopped…we just drove on by with a “oh well, it’s just another bison” comment. He wasn’t doing anything interesting. The second one we saw was literally 15 feet away so I did get a shot of him. Later on…another huge jam…30 or 40 cars on a narrow mountainside road…they said “there’s a bear”. Took a single look where they were pointing…150 yards up the slop behind some trees…and just drove on. Even if we could have seen it…which was doubtful…it would just have been a bear dot in the photo. Having gotten lots of good bear photos before…a so-so one just didn’t do anything for us.

      Glad you like the posts…we do try to keep them interesting.


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