Dona had promised Hlaing Hlaing, one of the Humphrey Fellows she was working with, that we would take her to the National Bison Range. Our original plan was to take three of the fellows, but two couldn't make it at the last minute, so Hlaing Hlaing was the only one who went with us.
We started out about four o'clock in the afternoon from Missoula; it's an hour or so drive.
Your options are few when visiting the Bison Range; there are only two places you are allowed out of the car to walk, and there is basically one big loop to drive. But it is a pretty drive with an incredible variety of wildlife to see in a relatively small space.
We didn't see much on the first part of the drive up the west side. But we did see a yearling black bear. We wondered where mom might be, but this guy / gal appeared to be off on her own. Unlike grizzlies, black bears are independent after about a year and a half, so it was about time for this one to be making her way in the world. She was pretty lucky in terms of the part of the world she had available to her!
We stopped at the pull-out near the top where you can take a short walk out on a low ridge where there are some Bitterroots growing.
The Bitterroots are on a ridge where the grasses fizzle out and give way to rocks. Just as we got to where the Bitterroots were growing we spotted a Rattlesnake. We saw it first as it was trying to slip away from the trail; it moved behind a rock, coiled into an 'S' so it could strike if necessary, and gave its characteristic rattle. It hissed at me a little when I got closer than it wanted to take a picture.
This was a Western Rattlesnake (also known as Prairie Rattlesnake) and is the only venomous snake in Montana. If you click on the left-hand picture to enlarge it you can count the rattles on the end of its tail; it looks like this one has nine, so I think it is at least nine years old. A rattlesnake can lose some or all of its rattles; they can break off. But I *think* I read a long time ago that they add one new rattle each year, a result of shedding their skin. If that's true, then counting the rattles gives you at least a minimum age.
We were a few days early for the full bloom of the Bitterroots. Most of them were just starting, but a few were partially open. The Arrowleaf Balsamroot were mostly done blooming; there were also a few Penstemon. I think this one is Alberta Penstemon.
We ran across quite a few Mule Deer with fawns. We also saw a few Pronghorns.
As we were driving around we saw a few lone Bison, but we were hoping to see some new baby calves. When we finally did find them they were a long ways from the road, back up against the base of the hills.
We also saw a few elk towards the end of our drive. I thought they were cows, but when I blew up the picture below I could see they were bulls just starting to grow their new antlers.
That's a pretty good collection of wildlife for an afternoon!