Just Another Day at the Office, Ansley Ford
Swan Ecosystem Center, Anne Dahl

Watching Wildlife

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of the buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and looses itself in the sunset.” - Crow Foot (1821-1890)

The Flathead Watershed is a wildlife watchers dream. From migratory birds to Grizzly bears, the watershed delivers a plethora of wildlife viewing opportunities. Whether you have time for a short walk, a long excursion, or a leisurely drive, there are some excellent places for getting a personal glimpse of the wild side. There are over 100 nesting pairs of Osprey in the watershed. They arrive in April, nest the first part of May, hatch eggs in mid-June, and fledge in late July. Bald eagles are also common in the Flathead Watershed. Here are a few ideas for wildlife viewing:

The National Bison Range is the largest refuge of the National Bison Range Complex located in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation near Moiese. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tribes cooperatively manage the Complex under an Annual Funding Agreement. The Bison Range is home to elk, white-tail and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, black bear, and about 350-500 bison. Because of its open grasslands, it is a wonderful place to observe and photograph wildlife. The Visitor Center has interpretive displays, orientation videos and a bookstore.

National Bison Range

Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park are both home to diverse assemblies of wildlife. Visitors enjoy seeing grizzly and black bears, wolves, elk, deer, as well as small mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects. Harlequin ducks can be seen in May and June along the upper reaches of McDonald Creek, and from Avalanche Creek to Logan Creek. The cliffs above the Going-to-the-Sun Road as it climbs the Garden Wall toward Logan Pass are an excellent spot for mountain goats. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, and marmots are often seen on park trails, particularly the Highline Trail. Hidden Lake trail is popular for viewing ptarmigans.

Parks Canada Waterton Lakes National Park

Glacier National Park

The Flathead National Forest offers excellent wildlife viewing in the national forest including over 1.5 million acres (607,000 hectares) of wilderness in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Roads throughout the non-wilderness portion of the Forest provide opportunities to explore the landscape from a vehicle. There are just over 1400 miles of road generally open for vehicle travel. Occasional road closures to protect natural resources occur throughout the year. Maps are available at any of the Ranger District offices.

Flathead National Forest

Figure 4.25: Pine Grosbeak in spruce. Source: Lori Curtis

The Ninepipe Refuge is an easement refuge located on Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal land which encompasses the irrigation facility of Ninepipe Reservoir. The refuge is managed under the authority of the National Bison Range Complex, through a cooperative effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tribes. The refuge consists of 390 acres (158 hectares) of upland habitat in a narrow band around the reservoir. Grasslands surrounding the refuge include 3,420 acres (1,384 hectares) of State Game Management Area, approximately 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of Tribal Conservation Area lands and 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservation easements. 

The wetland habitat supports waterfowl species such as mallards, northern shovelers, gadwalls, redheads and ruddy ducks and has become an important breeding and staging area for a large portion of the Flathead Watershed Canada goose population. Other birds include song sparrows, yellow headed and red winged blackbirds, and ring necked pheasants. Common mammals at the refuge include muskrat, striped skunk, mink, badgers, field mice, meadow voles, and porcupines.

Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge

Pablo National Wildlife Refuge is an easement refuge located on Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal trust land which encompasses the irrigation facility of Pablo Reservoir. The refuge is managed under the authority of the National Bison Range Complex through a cooperative effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tribes. The refuge includes 2,500 acres (1,012 hectares) of water, marsh, and upland grassland. The refuge provides nesting and resting areas for migratory birds and other wildlife. Waterfowl numbers vary throughout the year with as many as 80,000 in October and November, and half that number in late March through early May. A few ducks and geese may spend the winter. Nesting begins in late March and lasts through July. The most abundant nesting species are Canada geese, mallards, and redheads. Pintail, American widgeon, shoveler, blue and green-winged teal, ruddy duck, gadwall, common merganser, and coot are also present. Other species of water, marsh, and upland birds are abundant from May to October. Common loons are occasionally seen and this is a good area to see Bald Eagles. Common mammals on these refuges are the field mouse or meadow vole, muskrat, and striped skunk. Mink, badgers, and porcupines have also been observed. 

Pablo National Wildlife Refuge

Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge encompasses the 160-acre (179 hectare) Dahl Lake, a partially drained, shallow wetland system. Upland areas are a mosaic of prairie grasslands dominated by native and non-native cool-season grasses. Surrounding wooded slopes are filled with aspen, ponderosa pine, and Douglas-fir. The habitat diversity supports a variety of wildlife species. At least 14 species of both migratory and breeding waterfowl use the wetland areas. Marsh and shorebirds are present during the summer months, including sandhill cranes, bitterns, and black terns. Both golden and bald eagles nest on the Refuge. Gray wolves and Canada lynx are occasionally seen on the Refuge.

Lost Trail Wildlife Refuge

The Flathead River Wildlife Habitat Protection Area offers viewing of black bear, mule deer, white-tailed deer, geese and a variety of ducks.

Flathead River Wildlife Habitat Protection Area

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” - Albert Einstein

The Owen Sowerwine Natural Area includes 442 acres of riparian bottomland state school trust land covered with cottonwood forests hosting 80 species of birds, as well as other native wildlife and plants. Owen Sowerwine is Montana’s only designated “Natural Area.” Management as a Natural Area maintains natural wildlife and aquatic life habitat, protecting species from human disturbance as far as possible. It is designated as a “State Important Bird Area” because it provides model nesting and foraging habitat for riparian-dependent birds.

Owen Sowerwine Natural Area

The Swan River National Wildlife Refuge offers observation of the marsh where a variety of wildlife can be viewed. About 171 species of birds have been documented on the Refuge, including Canada geese, great blue herons and various species of ducks and teals. There is at least one nesting pair of bald eagles in the area attracted by the high number of fish in the Swan River. Moose, white-tailed deer, elk, coyote, black bear, beaver, bobcat, muskrat, raccoon, porcupine and the occasional grizzly bear can also be seen there.

Swan River National Wildlife Refuge

Waterfowl can been viewed from several roadside and walking locations. Lower Valley Road from Four Corners in Kalispell crosses several sloughs and marshes and parallels the Flathead River offering ample viewing of waterfowl. Smith Lake in Kila is a great place to see ducks, grebes, and sandhill cranes. Ducharme Point at the south end of Flathead Lake provides an excellent window onto the world of shorebirds. A tribal recreational permit is available at local sporting goods stores. The Ray Kuhns area is a deer wintering range and bird-watching area on Farm-to-Market Road in Kalispell. Flathead, Blasdel, Batavia, McGregor Meadows, and Smith Lake Waterfowl Production Areas offer excellent sites for watching ducks, geese, shorebirds, hawks, and eagles.

Northwest Montana Wetland Management District

For more information, send email to info@flatheadwatershed.org or info@flatheadcore.org.
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