Sometimes up close and personal means . . . really up close, kinda scary, and magnificent all at once. Driving around a bend in the road on the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana and finding yourself in the middle of a whole herd of buffalo crossing the road is like that. You find that your jaw just drops as you gaze in amazement.
Nowhere else in America can you see buffalo roaming the range like this. There are some private ranches raising buffalo elsewhere, but these 18,500 acres are set aside to preserve one of the icons of the Old West in its native habitat. Open year round, visitors can drive out loop roads, even walk in certain places, through a wild and beautiful piece of American heritage.
The first time I visited the bison range I was about six. All visitors were guided by a park ranger back then, and I remember him jumping out of his car to kill a rattlesnake in the road (I wondered why he was so excited). And I remember driving slowly through a whole herd of buffalo lying in the sun-browned grass, watching us watching them.
The next time, I came as an adult, and spent as much time marveling at the spectacular view of the Mission Mountains as I did the sight of two buffalo bulls scrimmaging down the hill in a cloud of dust. We sat on the hood of the truck and just breathed in the smell of dust and grass and buffalo and looked at a section of country that still looks the way it did two hundred years ago when Lewis and Clark first came through. Kevin Costner, eat your heart out.
The National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge is one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the United States, established in 1908 when the buffalo were in danger of vanishing altogether. About 500 bison roam here, along with elk, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and even a few mountain goats, not to mention 200 species of birds, prairie dogs, and many other critters. Though but a tiny fraction of the millions of bison that once roamed the Great Plains, they represent something precious, and worth preserving forever.
Located just north of Missoula, Montana, the bison range lies between Moiese on the west and St. Ignatius on the east, where you will find one of the most beautiful little mission churches anywhere. Stop in and admire an interior that rivals the Sistine Chapel, and say a little prayer for the buffalo.