“Don’t try to touch the bison,” a friend warned me when I announced that I was heading to Montana for a four-day weekend.
I shrugged. “Why would you say that to me?”
My friend made a fair point. I do love bison.
It all began with a third grade visit to the bison diorama in the Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I loved everything about that giant beast—its funny, oversized head that was too heavy for its body, its long and unkempt fur like my own preteen perm, its vaguely confused expression. I loved that it looked like something from another time, something truly wild.
Don’t worry: I was under very strict supervision. (Jackie Laulanien)
But, at age 34, I had never seen a live bison, in captivity or anywhere else, and they were all I could talk about in the weeks leading up to my trip out to Big Sky country. A lifelong urban-dweller, I was convinced bison roamed like deer out there. What I soon learned was that while bison are certainly more prevalent in Montana than they are in, say, Midtown Manhattan, seeing one isn’t necessarily guaranteed when you land at the airport, and getting close to one of the more than one-ton animals is not advised.
So, I was delighted when I stumbled across something called Bison Quest, a working buffalo ranch with a resident herd of the shaggy remnants of the Ice Age.
Bison Quest is no zoo. It is your own private bison experience. The ranch only allows one group of people on the property at a time. With two adorable cabins, a teepee for hosting campfires and roasting marshmallows, and a dining tent, BQ is the ultimate in Montana glamping — with the added bonus of bison that meander past your cabin in the morning.
If there is one thing I learned during my time in the most isolated state in the lower 48, it is that you just meet good people in Montana. Pam and Craig Knowles are some of those people. This pair of biologists really fell into the hospitality game 10 years ago when they literally bought the ranch and then began to run out of money.
A friend suggested that they start opening up the spread to visitors, and Bison Quest was born in 2008.
“We’re not hosts and hostesses. We’re scientists,” Pam Knowles told me over breakfast soon after I arrived. “The first year we were terrified we would make huge mistakes, but we didn’t. What’s been amazing with Bison Quest is we have been able to touch more people this way than we could as biologists.”
Just a little bit of Pam’s fantastic home cooking. (Jo Piazza)
I’d never thought about making sticky buns in a Dutch oven, but after getting a taste of Pam’s version of the dish, I won’t bake them any other way. We learned everything you would ever want to know about Montana’s bison over those sticky buns, while licking the caramelized sugar off our fingertips, before Pam and Craig took us to meet the herd.
Early visitors to the Great Plains reported enormous amounts of bison roaming through the wilderness. But the bison were driven to the brink of extinction by hunters in the late 1800s. The survivors were rounded up by conservationists in an attempt to repopulate their herds, and they have flourished in the National Bison Range and in Yellowstone Park.
Today, there are approximately 350,000 bison in the United States, mostly in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.
There are 60 bison on the Bison Quest ranch, and Craig recognizes each one by its face.
"How can you tell?” I asked him. Craig shook his head. To him it is just so obvious. He recognizes each mark, each tuft of fur, and each droopy eye.
Arrow — Craig and Pam’s rescue dog — knows better than to get out of the car and mess with the bison. (Jo Piazza)
We piled into Pam’s pickup truck, along with Arrow, their rescued cattle dog, dragging a trailer covered in hay to feed the herd. Craig stands bowlegged on the back with a pitchfork, doling out the food as the bison gallop behind us.
Oh, hi! (Jo Piazza)
“People can’t love what they don’t know, so our job is to let them know it,” Pam told me.“Guests come up to me again and again to tell me that it has changed their lives and that they will never look at wild things the same way again.”
You can’t help but love buffalo, but you should be wary of them. Even Pam and Craig don’t wander into the herd. They know which ones you can touch and which you should steer clear of. These are still wild animals, after all.
Lagging behind the herd. (Jo Piazza)
Some of the bison, like Gracie, are tame enough that you can approach them, pet them, and even feed them, which you do by filling your hand with grain, turning it into a funnel, and scooping it into their mouths. The bison will stretch out its long, sandpapery tongue to catch any falling bits, wrapping its tongue around the length of your wrist if you don’t withdraw it quickly enough.
Once feeding time had concluded, we hopped on a pair of four-wheelers to rush right through the herd and finally get close to the one rare winter baby bison here, Black-eyed Susan. She stared at us with her wide, new eyes.
You’re really getting away from it all when you head out here. We were only an hour outside Bozeman when we just stopped seeing other human beings.
The cabins are simple and delightfully authentic. Your cell phones won’t work out here most of the time, which is a good thing. The plush beds are covered in handmade quilts, and a wood stove burns quietly in the corner.
Pam and Craig wanted to keep the cabins simple and cozy. (Jo Piazza)
"Listen to the things you hear here,” Pam said to me. “You won’t hear them any other place. Why wouldn’t you want to pay attention?”
She’s right. You can hear the soft snuffling of the buffalo, somewhere between a snort and a sigh. You can hear warblers chatting among themselves, the crackle of crisp leaves, the crunch of snow, the cackle of a rooster.
A long day out with the herd left us exhausted and ready to climb under the covers, but Pam slow-cooked a bison pot roast for us all day, and the scent wafting from the cook tent lured us to the table.
Bison pot roast with tongue. (Jo Piazza)
“You have to try the tongue,” Pam said to me. “A lot of Americans don’t like the tongue, but it is really the best part."
She’s right. The tongue is tender, and it melts in your mouth like butter. We found ourselves fighting over the last bits of it.
We finished the evening with s’mores by the campfire inside the teepee, where Craig and Pam regaled us with the story of how they met and fell in love. We won’t ruin it here (you’ll want them to tell it when you’re on your trip), but it begins with the line: “Well, I once had this pet coyote…”