Seasons of Wildlife

Cow bison with new red-colored calf by side.  Photo by Pat Jamieson, NBR/USFWS

For the wildlife enthusiast, a visit to the National Bison Range at any season is a journey of never-ending discovery. Year to year and season to season, the dynamic ebb and flow of wildlife is in constant change. Wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities are extraordinary at the Bison Range. Knowing when to come and where to go will greatly increase your success at seeing and photographing wildlife.

  • Winter - December, January, Feburary

    Two gray partridge in snowy field.  Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick, NBR/USFWS

    Winter can bring blowing snow and bone chilling cold. However, the short days and cold weather make many animals active throughout the day. It is a quiet time of year and you frequently get to have the Bison Range and its snowy scenery all to yourself. 

    A few birds migrate into the valley for the winter, including rough-legged hawks, seen soaring over the grasslands. This is also a good time of year to see bald eagles in the area. Townsend’s solitaires and waxwings are found feeding on juniper berries along the rivers and creeks. Numerous mallards and other waterfowl utilize Mission Creek, as long as it stays unfrozen. Watch for northern shrikes hovering and hunting over the grasslands. One usually sets up in the junipers at the Visitor Center. 

    Great horned owls become active in January/February as they begin courtship and prepare for laying eggs in March. A pair frequently nests near the Day Use Area or along the Nature Trail. Watch for the smaller owls, pygmy and northern saw-whet, along this trail, also. Pygmy owls will sometimes be out during the day in winter. 

    Coyotes also start breeding in winter so listen for them calling and watch for them traveling through the grasslands. White-tail deer frequent Mission Creek and watch for elk here and along the tree lines. 

  • Spring - March, April, May

    Male mountain bluebird at entrance to nest box.  Photo by Pat Jamieson, NBR/USFWS

    The Bison Range truly comes alive in spring. The native intermountain grassland bursts into color as native wildflowers carpet the hillsides with balsamroot, yellowbells, lupine and paintbrush. The air is scented with the blossoms of serviceberry, chokecherry, and wild rose. 

    Mountain bluebirds and western meadowlarks will start showing up at the Bison Range as early as March, depending on weather conditions. Nest boxes for the bluebirds (which are also used by tree swallows) are found along the fences near the Visitor Center. Early season birdwatching can be easier because trees and bushes haven’t fully leafed. And the birds are in full voice, singing for territories and mates. 

    Best of all, bison calves are born mid-April to mid-May. They carry a rusty red coat until they are about 2 months old. Pronghorn give birth in May, but are harder to see as they are kept well hidden until they are able to run fast enough to avoid predators. Bison babies don’t have that problem as they have 800-1000 pound mothers to protect them.

  • Summer - June, July, August

    Two bighorn sheep rams, on bedded, on standing in summer grass.  Photo by Pat Jamieson, NBR/USFWS

    Temperatures reach 90°F or more in July and August but low humidity usually brings cool nights. It is best to plan to visit early morning or late evening, when wildlife is more active, as they try to beat the heat. This is the time of year that bighorn sheep rams will seek the cooler winds of High Point, allowing for views by visitors. Unlike most wildlife, they will be out during the sunniest of days.

    Young elk and deer are born in early June. Mule deer are typically found along Pauline Creek and in higher elevations while white-tail deer will be seen along Mission Creek. Elk are found anywhere there is forest cover.

    The prairie color fades out towards the end of June as native flowers set seed and spend the hot, dry months in dormancy. One of our last flowers to bloom is the bitterroot, the state flower of Montana and a culturally significant plant for the local indigenous people such as the Flathead, Kutenai, Nez Perce, Paiute, Shoshoni, and others. Traditionally, the roots were gathered, dried for storage, and used for food or trade. The root is bitter, so it was cooked and often mixed with meat or berries. To view this plant, take the short Bitterroot Trail and watch for them among the rocks. Bitterroot flowers close up at night and during rainy and overcast days (to protect their pollen) so plan accordingly if you want to see these pink beauties.

    The berries bushes along Pauline Creek set fruit by summer’s end and this is a good time to see black bears. Remember, black bears come in different colors – tan, brown, cinnamon. So to decide if you’re seeing a grizzly or black bear, like the shape of ears and face. The bushes are thick but with patience you may hear and even see bears feeding (remember, for your safety and to avoid disturbing wildlife, stay at your vehicle). Bullock’s orioles, gray catbirds and spotted towhees are also found feeding on berries. Most breeding species of birds are in abundance, busy nesting and feeding young.

  • Autumn - September, October, November

    Mule deer buck, side view, in full antlers with red and gold autumn bushes.  Photo by Pat Jamieson, NBR/USFWS

    Changeable weather in the fall makes outdoor activity chancy but rewarding. Snow on the mountain peaks and cottonwoods turning gold provide glorious backdrops. Red Sleep Mountain Drive is typically open until October, providing one last chance to enjoy this scenic trip before winter sets into the Mission Valley.

    The elk mating season starts in September, with much bugling by males as they try to attract females and fend off males (remember, do not use calls as this will disturb the animals). A really good place to see this activity is along Mission Creek, either morning or evening. Deer follow with their courtship activity in October and November. Travel along this section of scenic drive changes during this time of year, from one-way to two-way. Please note and follow all posted signs and do not to travel backwards when it is designated as a One-Way road.

    Birds start to leave, taking their bright colors and songs away. Some birds stay year round and provide birdwatchers with sightings. Watch for the ubiquitous black-billed magpie, with its black-and-white feather and long tail, flying around most places on the Refuge. Other common winter birds include the small black-capped chickadee, northern flickers, and downy and hairy woodpeckers. Also, northern residents migrate to the area for the winter, starting the seasonal cycle all over again.