Tuesday, February 27, 2024

We can see clearly now

| July 16, 2023 12:00 AM

There’s a new bison in town.

For more than 50 years, travelers along U.S. 2 might have spied a bison in a Plexiglas “tank” mounted atop a pole on the north side of the road where Kalispell gives way to Evergreen.

In place since the 1950s or '60s at Greenwood Village, according to manager Tyler Hickey, the original bison was a pet of the property’s former owner, Dennis Rasmussen, who also ran a bison farm. After the animal died of old age, it earned a spot monitoring traffic heading in and out of Kalispell.

Over time the Plexiglas grew clouded, too opaque to see in or out. The direct sunlight and heat took a toll, and the compartment filled with dust.

“It shrunk so much it split,” Hickey said, describing a crack through the bison’s nose. “As a conservationist, I saw it had become a poor representation of the species and it was a disservice to the animal.”

He likened the bison’s condition, and the solution, to what happens when an American flag becomes torn and tattered: “If it’s not fit to represent the country, it needs to be properly disposed of.”

Hickey started working on the problem years ago.

At first he aimed to replace the animal with a new mount, saying, “We were trying to get a bison permit — for a free-range animal.” The uncertainty and expense of that endeavor gave him pause. Then after consultation with Bone Collector Taxidermy’s Eric Kallis, when Hickey learned the enclosure would need to have tinted windows and climate control, he decided to go a different direction.

“The sunlight is hard up there, and the temperature swings from 30 below to 105,” Hickey said. “It was a matter of getting something right.”

Hickey, a red-haired fellow with a can-do demeanor and a ready handshake, recruited his 20-year-old son Hunter for the six-hour operation that took place last month.

They fired up Old Blue, a 1979 F600 truck with a boom, and got to work. First, they dismantled the homemade enclosure, then they removed the bison. It was shriveled and cracked but still a heavy lift.

For the second stage of the effort, Hickey had procured 20 feet of rail from BNSF Railway “in use since before Montana was a state,” he said. The ties the rail is mounted on came as leftovers from the Kalispell Parkline project.

“I handpicked them” for their character, Hickey said. “I didn’t want anything that looked modern.”

All was tied down, anchored and even railroad spiked as the new bison took a stand in its new home astride a base of 1882 railroad track. At 350 pounds, he is a solid piece made of cast aluminum from recycled transmission housings.

Earlier in our visit, Hickey had lit up talking about reintroduced bison in the eastern part of Montana, ranging as they used to.

On this bright summer day Hickey’s project shines along U.S. 2. The bison’s tail looks ready to flick as he stares southeast.

There are no more wild bison roaming here, but at least one is out of the box.

“I’ve still got lights to do,” Hickey says, then adds with a backward look to the bison as we walk away, “maybe a high gloss sealer.”

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

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