On the range

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

I learned the art of the road trip early in life, thanks to my parents’ affinity for car travel.

I can’t actually say that either of them are self-professed hodophiles (lovers of travel, particularly of roads), but I do know that nearly all my childhood vacations were enjoyed from the third-row window seat of an SUV.

There was the time we visited my sister, eight years my elder, as she worked a summer job in Arizona near the Grand Canyon. At one point during the journey, we drove through a lightning storm that turned the atmosphere purple. I watched the electricity dance across the orange landscape while my two little sisters slept in the car’s second row. At one point, the man on the radio announced between songs that pop icon Michael Jackson had died.

This memory and so many more live in my mind with the same dull drone of tires on asphalt providing the ever-present soundtrack. 

A common Kiebert family road trip remains a visit to the National Bison Range, located in Moiese, Mont., just a short drive off the U.S. Hwy. 200 route between Sandpoint and Missoula, Mont. 

The NBR, which was officially established by the federal government in 1908 and is now managed by a joint partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, consists of nearly 19,000 acres on the 1.25 million-acre Flathead Indian Reservation. 

Over its long and winding history, the NBR has managed to grow and manage a herd of 350-500 bison, as well as populations of elk, deer, bear and many other indigenous fauna. The range features a visitor center, as well as two self-guided driving routes meant to give sightseers their best chance at catching a glimpse of the local wildlife.

I’d guess I’ve been to the National Bison Range half a dozen times in my life leading up to this past Memorial Day weekend, when my husband Alex and I visited on our way home from an overnight stay in Missoula. The spring landscape was a textbook Big Sky blue atop flourishing green hills as we made our way up the steep grade at the start of the NBR’s Red Sleep Drive: a two-hour journey by car that covers a wide swath of the range.

I told Alex I was nervous that we’d spend two hours in the car (not to mention the two hours we still had to drive home) without seeing any animals. I had many memories of seeing all walks of wildlife both close-up and far away during my family’s NBR visits. In none of my recollections did we ever get entirely skunked, but still — if it was going to happen, I was sure it would be when I most wanted to share the experience with my favorite person.

“It’ll be fine regardless,” he assured me. “It’s a beautiful day for a drive.”

My worries subsided as we came around a bend and spotted two pronghorn antelope in the  distance. About a quarter mile later, we saw four mule deer on a far-off hillside. Soon a meadowlark perched not five yards from my downed window and treated us to its song. 

About three miles into the 19-mile Red Sleep Drive, I was taking notes on a map from the visitor center about the animals we saw, when Alex stopped the car behind a long line of traffic. 

We had dropped into a draw and the thick, creekside shrubbery blocked much of our view, so I nearly jumped out of my seat when a massive, dark-brown ungulate stood up 20 yards away.

Bison graze roadside at the National Bison Range in Moiese, Mont., on Memorial Day 2023. Photo by Alex Carey.

My notes — which became much less detailed at that point — indicated that the first herd consisted of around a dozen adult bison. Alex and I were ecstatic. 

We moved on in order to let other drivers get a better view, and soon came upon another herd enjoying a creekside siesta. 

That second herd harbored the best treat of the day: seven bison babies, light red-brown and huddled together inside a protective circle of cows.

At that point, my notes stopped altogether; and, for the next 16 miles, we estimate we saw between 50-60 adult bison. Big bulls dotted the landscape all along the climb to the top of Red Sleep Mountain; some of them writhed around in dust wallows like big dogs.

We spent the drive in intermittent conversation with the radio off, letting the cross-breeze of prairie wind and crunch of gravel fill the silence. After exactly two hours (even with the occasional stop-and-gawk, we managed to drive the loop in perfect time), we headed home, Alex with his first successful NBR visit under his belt and me with a renewed affinity for road trips.

It was, in fact, a beautiful day for a drive.

Learn more about the National Bison Range at bisonrange.org.

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