42 miles N of Missoula; 75 miles S of Kalispell
The Confederated Salish & Kootenai tribes make their home on the Flathead Indian Reservation, with tribal headquarters for the 1.3-million-acre reservation in Pablo. The tribes, however, own only slightly more than 50% of the land within reservation boundaries.
The change in culture for the tribes came quickly when fur traders, homesteaders, and the missionaries of the Catholic Church headed west. Founded in the early 1850s by Jesuit priests, the town of St. Ignatius (located 32 miles north of Missoula on U.S. 93) is nestled in the heart of the Mission Valley. One of the valley's larger small towns, St. Ignatius has a modest Flathead Indian Museum and trading post on the highway.
Wildlife conservation and land management have played big parts in the lives of the tribal members. The Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness was the first wilderness area officially designated as such by a tribe in the United States. Hiking in the wilderness area requires the purchase of a tribal permit from the Flathead Reservation Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, 42487 Complex Blvd., Box 278, Pablo, MT 59855 (tel. 406/675-2700; www.cskt.org). The Mission Mountains Wilderness is located in the Mission Mountain Range, east of U.S. 93. Numerous gravel roads lead up to the trail heads.
The St. Ignatius Mission, 300 Beartrack Ave., P.O. Box 667, St. Ignatius, MT 59865 (tel. 406/745-2768), was established in 1854 as an offshoot of the missionary work of the famous Jesuit Father Pierre DeSmet. A Father Hoecken began the mission in a small log cabin, which is still on the premises and serves as the visitor center. In 1891, the mission added this magnificent brick church in its ministry to the Indians. The ceiling is decorated with 58 murals, depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, by Brother Joseph Carignano, an Italian Jesuit without formal art training. The mission is 2 blocks off U.S. 93.
The National Bison Rang (tel. 406/644-2211; www.fws.gov/bisonrange/nbr), just west of St. Ignatius on reservation land, is 7 miles southwest of Charlo on County Road 212. The 18,500 acres here contain between 350 and 500 bison, the remnants of a national bison herd that once totaled 60 million. The visitor center has a small display about the history and ecology of bison in America. The 19-mile Red Sleep Road goes through four different habitat types -- grasslands, riparian, montane forest, and wetlands. In addition to the bison, you'll see deer, bighorn sheep, antelope, and maybe an occasional coyote or black bear. There's a trail here for people with physical disabilities. Gates are open from 7am to dusk daily year-round; the visitor center is open from 8am to 6pm weekdays, 9am to 6pm weekends in summer, and 8am to 4pm weekdays in winter. Cost is $5 per car (free in winter).
If you're more interested in feathers than in fur, check out the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 406/644-2211; www.fws.gov/bisonrange/ninepipe), which is next to U.S. 93, 5 miles south of Ronan. Established in 1921, the refuge has more than 2,000 acres of water, marsh, and grassland for the double-crested cormorant and the great blue heron, among other migrating birds. The refuge is open daily from dawn to dusk, although portions are closed during the fall and early winter hunting season and the bird-nesting season in spring and early summer. Admission is free. Fishing is permitted in some areas of the adjacent Pablo Reservoir, but a tribal permit is required. For information on tribal fishing regulations, call tel. 406/675-2700.