Bison Range gets steady stream of visitors after closure
NATIONAL BISON RANGE — The gates opened for visitors at the National Bison Range on Monday, Aug. 10, after being locked for four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had a steady stream of cars coming in since we opened,” said Jennifer Strickland, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee. “Everything has been running smoothly.”
Regular operating routines are not quite back to normal. The range is open in what is being called the “initial phase” of opening, which means the gates are unlocked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Visitor Center and the day-use area will remain closed.
“People should start the big drive by 4:30 (in the afternoon) in order to be finished by the 6 p.m. closing time,” she said.
On Friday afternoon, bison were kicking up dust near the road, a mule deer enjoyed the shade while a hawk flew overhead and a single pronghorn rested on the prairie.
“There are lots of interesting things going on. People can come out and enjoy themselves with a drive through the loop,” she said. “The herd count on the bison is at 300. We’ve done routine maintenance on the refuge. We just ask that people follow the rules posted at the refuge.”
The changes include the continued closure of the Visitor Center. The fee process is still the same. Visitors can pay the $5-$10 fee outside the center. “The iron ranger is where visitors usually pay,” Amy Coffman said of the outside drop box. “We are honoring all federal passes.”
While visiting the range, people are asked not to leave their cars and not to liter. Designated restrooms are also available. “We also ask that people don’t approach the wildlife,” Strickland said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a statement on Aug. 10, explaining that the range had been closed to support the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. CSKT declared a state of emergency on March 17 and shutdown the Flathead Reservation to protect the community from the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“Through our government-to-government relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the National Bison Range being located completely within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation, we believe it is important to follow the same timeframe as the tribes when increasing public access to the refuge,” FWP stated in a news release.
The release continued: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is following federal, tribal, state and local public health authority guidance to implement a phased approach to increase public access to the National Bison Range. In accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in coordination with the tribes, the governor and local public health authorities, when authorized, the National Bison Range will follow the plan in order to safely increase access.”
The re-opening plan for the National Bison Range is divided into three phases. In the initial phase, which is where the range is at now, the entrance will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The auto tour will be open to vehicle visitors. The Visitor Center will be closed. Portable toilets will be available in the Visitor Center parking lot through the summer.
The eastern Mission Creek fishing access will be open, but signs will be up for hazards, such as grizzly bears and bison. The day-use area and associated trails will be closed. The facilities within the government quarters and maintenance areas of the refuge will be closed to the public. Information for visitors will be available through general brochures, social media, signage and the website.
In the second phase, volunteers and interns will be allowed to assist the visitor services maintenance program at the range. Donations will be collected through the fee collection box in the Visitor Center parking lot.
In the third phase, the additions to the first and second phase include, opening the Visitor Center with restricted access and hours. Social distancing will still be in place. The day-use area and trails will be opened. Fee collection will resume, following the Secretary of Interior’s order. The Red Sleep Mountain Drive will be open until October, as per normal operations.
The range encourages safety with a few protocols that include checking the conditions on the website and calling ahead for current information. People are encouraged to follow the Centers for Disease Control’s safe practices guidelines by maintaining a safe distance in groups; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; and people should cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Staying home if you feel sick is one of the most important health guidelines to protect safety, according to the range.