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Bison Range has youthful feel in spring

Sun., June 5, 2011, 6:50 a.m.

When it comes to the four seasons at the National Bison Range at Moiese, Mont., different people have different favorites, Pat Jamieson says.

Some prefer summer, even though it can get hot, dry and doggoned brown around here. The reason?

“It’s bison mating season, and that can get pretty exciting,” said Jamieson, the outdoor recreation planner at the national wildlife refuge about 40 miles north of Missoula.

“Some people like fall, when the elk have their antlers and are bugling. There are even people who like to come in winter, because it’s so quiet, and you can pretty much have the place to yourself.”

But most people are probably like Jamieson.

At the Bison Range, there’s no time like spring, when the wildlife is giving birth among the range’s blooming wildflowers.

Bear cubs are the first out of the hatch, born in February while they’re still tucked away in dens with hibernating moms.

Bison are next, starting in mid- to late April and continuing into June.

They are the most visible of the newborns.

Unlike the pronghorns giving birth in late May and the deer and elk that are starting this month, the mothers of the rust-colored bison calves aren’t too concerned about predators trying to make dinner out of their newborns. There’s no attempt to hide the calves.

“Nothing in nature is stupid enough to bother an 800-pound mother,” Jamieson said.

Well, nothing except, of course, people.

Jamieson is always happy for the opportunity to remind visitors not to leave their vehicles when they’re near bison, and point out the danger is even greater when calves are present.

“They don’t have the capacity to understand you won’t hurt them,” Jamieson said. “Cars? They know cars don’t eat bison, and they’re used to them here. But if you get out and now they’re looking at a person instead of a car – well, a bison’s defense is not to run away. It’s to smush you.”

A tad more intricate is the defensive battle plan of a new pronghorn mom.

Their fawns have a pretty steep mortality rate, and a fascinating cat-and-mouse game that goes on between the mothers and the coyotes that like to cart off the babies in order to feed their own pups.

To start with, pronghorns usually give birth to twins, doubling their chances that at least one of their offspring will survive.

“They hide them very well in the grass,” Jamieson said. “Coyotes will watch for the pronghorn females to come to feed their babies so they can figure out where the fawns are hidden. The pronghorns know to go in a different direction from their fawns for food.”

Two years ago, Jamieson saw a coyote with its jaws clamped around a pronghorn fawn and hauling it off.

“All of a sudden, a golden eagle flew overhead,” she said.

“It just crumpled and dove straight at the coyote. The coyote ducked, dropped the fawn and ran in one motion, and the golden eagle got the fawn.”

Pronghorns at the Bison Range eventually figure out that tourists aren’t all bad.

“Older females learn over time that coyotes don’t like people, and they don’t like cars.” Jamieson said. “They learn that people in cars won’t bother them, but coyotes will. They learn to have their babies by the road, and bed them by the road.”

It’s not the case for the pronghorns that roam eastern Montana, where there’s plenty of room for them to spread out and hide their babies.

But for Bison Range visitors, it means a better chance of spying a pronghorn fawn as they make the 19-mile loop around Red Sleep Mountain Drive.

The first two weeks are the most critical for a pronghorn fawn’s survival.

“It is the fastest land animal in North America,” Jamieson said of the species, which can go from 0 to maybe 60 mph in a flash as an adult, and maintain a high speed for long distances.

“Once they’re 2 weeks old, they can outrace almost anything. Unless they’re injured, no predator can catch them in the right habitat. It usually takes deep snow bogging them down, or obstacles such as fences, for any predator to have a chance at them.”

A big year for mice can boost the fawn survival rate.

“It takes time for a coyote to watch pronghorn females, study their body language,” Jamieson said. “They don’t want to waste their time and get nothing. Mice are easier to catch, so if it’s a good mouse year, they’ll kill more of those.”

Other species giving birth at the Bison Range include bighorn sheep. Their protection of their young is pretty simple, and the opposite of the pronghorns’ roadside strategy.

Ewes lamb in the rugged terrain only they can access.

The new life on the range is only one reason it’s Jamieson’s favorite time of year here.

Birds are back, too, and many of the wildflowers have been blooming. Among them, larkspur, shooting stars, prairie smoke, the sunflower-colored arrowleaf balsamroot and the whimsically named mouse-on-a-stick.

The flowers can be a bonus to a National Bison Range visit, and they can save a trip, too.

“I love spring here,” Jamieson said. “And I like the flowers, because they don’t run away.”

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