BIGHORN and a Little Bit of Eden

by Dave Hanks

There is a place just north of Missoula, Montana in the Mission
Valley by the Flathead River – a place I love to visit. In fact, it would rank
in my top ten. It is the National Bison Range. In addition to the Bison, one of
the greatest attractions is the Bighorn Sheep that reside there.

The range covers several levels: from the river bottom, to prairie steppe, to
a steep climb into a mountainous terrain. There is a 19 mile road that you can
drive to view the area. However, once on the road you cannot turn back as it is
narrow and therefore one way. It is on the descent off the mountain (which is
steep enough to give one a thrill) that you will come upon the sheep. Groups of
magnificent rams are often within camera view. Their view and ours extends out
over the surrounding valley and the small town of St. Ignatius to the east.

Ovis canadensis stands 3 to 3 ½ feet high and weighs between 125 to 200
pounds. Its name comes from the male’s massive, spiraling horns. These can be
very impressive on the more mature animals. Bighorns are a grayish-brown with a
white rump. They are excellent climbers and in summer seek the security of
cliffs that are difficult for predators to transverse. They use the habitat in
conjunction with Mountain Goats – each utilizing it in a different season. Sheep
go up in the summer and down in to the valleys in winter, which is opposite to
the goat’s movements.

Bighorn, Bison, Pronghorn, Mule and White-Tailed Deer, Coyote, and sometimes
even bears are some of the mammals. There is a great abundance of birds and
wildflowers to experience. There is also a nice park by the river to rest in
after the drive over the mountain. The bird, deer, and turtle activity in the
park will add interest if one is inclined to picnic.

I marvel at the excitement and anticipation we experience each time we visit
this place. It has never disappointed us!

(At rest in the shade)

Bison: Remnants from Massive Herds of Yesteryear

The American Bison is not a buffalo. True buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. Bison, like cattle, are bovines. Incidentally cow (or bull) is not a species – they are genders. Bison can breed with our domestic cattle to produce a hybrid. Also, like cattle, they have four stomachs and chew their cud. Bison are the largest North American land animal and parallel our cattle in weight – bulls up to a ton and cows up to eleven hundred pounds.

Bison live on the prairie and on open, mountainous grasslands. They are most active in the early morning or evening (crepuscular), and even on moonlit nights. Mid-day usually finds them resting and cud chewing. This herd-type ungulate (hooves) has deceptive speed. A seemingly slow moving group always surprises me. They can be here and then gone in an amazing short period of time. Adults are a dark brown, but calves are a very attractive light, reddish-brown. At two to three months of age, the young switch to the darker adult color.

Depressions full of dust or mud are used as wallows. The wallowing helps shed hair and fight parasites. Bulls will do more wallowing at rutting time. Shaggy heads and shoulders are adapted to use as snow plows to reach winter feed or to face into blizzards. When faced with predators, calves and cows will move to the center of the herd – or when stampeding, in front with bulls at the rear for protection.

We have experienced Bison in Custer Park of South Dakota, Teddy Roosevelt Park of North Dakota, Canada’s Northwest Territories, and of course Yellowstone National Park. But, we find the National Bison Range, north of Missoula, Montana, to be the most interesting. The range borders the Flathead River. An Indian, by the name of Walking Coyote, hid four calves by the river during the age of the great Bison slaughter – thus the nucleus of this herd. The Bison in this park are managed to keep their range from being overgrazed. Each calf is branded a number according to its year of birth. In October, cowboys from surrounding communities drive the Bison into corrals where they are sorted, calves vaccinated, and an auction is held to dispose of the surplus.

American Bison

A massive front end – a formidable presentation to natural challenges

Bitterroot and an Indian Legend

Not many flowers have a full mountain range and a big beautiful valley named for them. But, this is a special flower. It is the Bitterroot. It is also Montana’s state flower. There is an Indian legend about how it came to be. Once upon a time an Indian mother was crying because her children were starving. The sun, feeling sorry for her, shone on her tears and changed them into beautiful purplish/pink flowers. This flower had great utility, as well as beauty. Its big, starchy root could be eaten, and the mother’s children no longer needed to go hungry. The Lemhi Shoshone tribe also believed that the small, red core, in the upper taproot, had special powers – notably to be able to stop bear attacks.

As the name suggests, the Bitterroot’s root is bitter. But, the bitterness disappears when cooked. The starch can be dried and preserved for months. Indians mixed it with either berries or meat or both – thus enhancing all the ingredients in the mix and making a nourishing food that could be stored for long periods. They also mixed it with the inner bark of Ponderosa Pine. Large scars still remain on some of these trees. Bitterroot was a staple food for many western Indian tribes. It was also used for trade with other Indians.

This plant grows in low, mountainous, sagebrush regions. It is a perennial that grows close to the ground to escape the harmful effects of wind. It has a composite inflorescence. (This means many individual, petal-like flowers around a flattened, broad receptacle.) The effect makes it look like a single flower. The leaves, which rodents love, tend to wilt and die before the plant blooms. Therefore, it appears as a leafless flower.

Meriwether Lewis was not a botanist, but he was to collect specimens of any new plants that he found. His first experience with this plant was when they first crossed the continental divide. They frightened some Shoshone Indians, who ran away leaving some baskets of dried Bitterroots. Lewis found the whole plant in Montana on the return trip. The plant was named for him.

We have observed this plant on the high mountain trail of the National Bison Range and at Craters of the Moon. It is one of Carolyn’s favorite flowers.

bitterroot flower

Lewisia rediviva