The National Bison Range and the Mission Mountains

Flathead Indian Reservation in Big Sky Montana

ICTMN Staff
6/10/11

The Flathead Indian Reservation is home to the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, which consists of the Bitterroot Salish, the Upper Pend d’Oreille, and the Kootenai.  The reservation is in northwest Montana, comprising 1.37 million acres of grassland, wetland, mountains, lakes and streams.  In a state already famous for it’s natural splendor, the Flathead Indian Reservation is situated in a choice spot, smack dab in the middle of a collection of wild life refuges and state and national parks that make it an unbeatable epicenter for any serious outdoorsmen or nature lover.  There are a number of hotels, motels, B&Bs, RV parks and campgrounds on the reservation’s land to make your home base.

Where to start when venturing onto the reservation’s sprawling acreage in search of the great outdoors? How about at the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, which sits in the Mission Valley within the Flathead Indian Reservation.  The refuge is located at the base of the Mission Mountains, and was carved by glacial activity some 12,000 years ago, and today is comprised of 2,062 acres of rolling grassland and pockets of “pothole wetlands” that serve as a vital home to many species of plant and animal life.   It is completely undeveloped, creating a refuge not just for the flora and fauna that call the valley home, but to visitors looking to get into wide open space without the drone of engines, car horns, or, if you’re smart and turn it off, cell phones.

What you will hear in Ninepipe is birdsong.  There are song sparrows, yellow headed and red winged blackbirds, red-necked grebes, American bitterns and sora rails.  Abundant waterfowl populations are supported by the 1,672 acres of water when the reservoir is at full pool level, such as northern shovelers and gadwalls, mallards and ruddy ducks.  The Flathead Valley Canada goose population uses the area for breeding and staging, while osprey nests are visible on platforms on the south shore of the refuge, as well as an active rookery of great blue herons and double crested cormorants.

If you’re not much of a birder, you can spot muskrats, skunks, minks, field mice, meadow voles, porcupines and badgers in Ninepipe.  Be forewarned, however, as larger mammals lumber into the park, including the occasional grizzly bear, who come down from the Mission Mountains to forage.

For fishing enthusiasts, Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge offers the untouched wetlands as a prime place to take your rod to fish for yellow perch and largemouth bass.  As the refuge is located on Tribal Trust Lands of the Confederate Salish & Kootenai Tribes, fishing is permitted via a tribal license and comes with certain guidelines.  The refuge’s 1,672-acre reservoir is open to fishing in the late summer once waterfowl breeding season is over (after July 15).  The refuge doesn’t allow boats, so there’s no engines roaring in the distance, offering a hard-to-match level of tranquility for those content to sit on shore with their rod, tackle box, and thoughts.

If you’d rather make like a fish then catch one, you can’t do much better then Flathead Lake State Park, the largest freshwater lake in the western United States.  Bordered on its eastern shore by the Mission Mountains and on the west by the Salish Mountains, Flathead Lake is 27.3 miles long and up to 15.5 miles wide, with a maximum depth of 370-feet (deeper then the average depths of the Persian Gulf.) You can snorkel, sail, sea kayak, swim, or just sunbathe on the beach.  The lake has its own little island, Wild Horse Island, which you can visit (but you can’t camp there.)  You can camp at spots along the lake, including Finley Point, Yellow Bay, Big Arm, Wayfarers and West Shore.

For land lovers, the National Bison Range/Pablo National Wildlife Refuge is a 20,000-acre natural grassland where approximately 500 bison roam.  The grassland also feeds bighorn sheep, elk, antelope, and deer.  There are year-round self-guided audio tours available.  Located in Moiese City, the 113-year old refuge is a perfect place for photography buffs looking to snap wildlife shots in a stunning landscape.

St. Ignatius Mission

Finally, for a man-made piece of history, the St. Ignatius Mission, established in 1854, was built by Native Americans under the direction of Catholic missionaries on the reservation. There are two paintings of the Salish Lord’s mother (in Native American form) in the back of the Mission.  The Mission itself is a beautiful red brick structure backed by the Mission Mountains.

For more information on where to say, visit the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes website.

For contact information for Flathead Lake State Park, the National Bison Range, Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, and St. Igantius Mission, click here.

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