By Robert Lucke
East of Havre in the Milk River Valley, on the Missouri Breaks and Little Rocky Mountains provide great wildlife viewing these days.
Falcon Press of Helena in their Montana Wildlife Viewing Guide, published in conjunction with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks details several wildlife viewing areas east of Hill County. Some of the most popular are the Little Rocky Mountains, The Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge.
Little Rocky Mountains
This heavily timbered, isolated mountain range rises abruptly from the surrounding plains, providing habitat for a unique mix of mountain and prairie wildlife. Many species found infrequently in eastern Montana are found here. See bighorn sheep (especially in winter) on the south side of Saddle Butte swifts. Look for blue grouse along pony Gulch; violet-green shallows can also be seen. Hike up Old Scraggy Peak from Beaver Creek to see mule and white-tailed deer, coyotes, beavers and porcupines. The Camp Creek Campground is very popular with birdwatchers look for warablers, Clarks nutcrackers, and mountain chickadees. In the winter watch for Bohemian waxwings here, evening grosbeaks in Zortman and rosy finches on the steep slopes. In the spring look for nesting prairie falcons on Silver Peaks southern cliffs and golden eagles on the drive in. Mining and logging roads provide access, but watch for trucks and machinery. Cross-country skiing is usually good. Information and maps are available from the BLM office in Zortman (open June-Aug.)
Directions: From Malta take US 191 about 40 miles southwest, then follow a good country road towards Zortman for seven miles, turning at Camp Creek Campground turnoff.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge Tour Route
This exceptional car tour passes through prairie grasslands, dense ponderosa pines and thick sagebrush with views of the scenic Missouri River. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refugethird largest refuge in the contiguous United Statesis probably the wildest remaining remnant of the Northern Great Plains, and contains the full complement of prairie wildlife: mule and white-tailed deer, and many varieties of hawks and eagles. Tour highlights vary with the season; from mid-March through mid-May, view sharp-tailed grouse performing their unusual mating dances, see and hear the nations largest remaining prairie elk herd (nearly 1000 animals) performing its fall mating rituals on the southern part of the tour route along the Missouri River. Its second only to Yellowstone Park for elk viewing. No human entry is permitted to this area, but the elk can be easily seen and photographed from the road. Hiking is deer, and elk on the Jones Island footpath along the Missouri River at the southern end of the route.
Directions: This approximately two-hour auto tour route begins and ends on US 191. The North entrance is 55 miles from Malta; and south entrance is a half mile north of where US 191 crosses the Missouri. The graveled road can be bad when wet.
Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge, which consists mainly of shortgrass prairie, wetlands, scattered shelterbelts, and shrubfields, offers exceptional viewing of waterfowl and white pelicans. See up to 100,000 ducks and geese during migration times. The refuge is especially known for its colonies of nesting birds Franklins gulls, black-crowned night herons, and white-faced ibis nest in the bullrush marshes, while white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and the California and ring-billed gulls grouse, ring-necked pheasants and gray partridge. On Big Island (actually a peninsula), hike to see sharp-tailed grouse mating rituals in April and May (inquire at the refuge headquarters) as well as the best view of some of the more than 1700 pelicans that nest here. Common large mammals on the refuge include pronghorns, coyotes, and white-tailed deer. More than 236 bird species have been seen here, including notable Montana species like Spragues pipit and McCowns longspur. Canoeing on the main lake or the Drumbo unit is exceptional, but check with the refuge headquarters for closure dates. An auto tour route (leaflet available on the site) is always open unless bad weather makes the dirt road impassable.
Directions: From Malta, follow US 2 east for about one mile, then drive east on the old US 2 for about six miles.
The Montana Wildlife Viewing Guide lists 113 of the best wildlife viewing sites all around Montana. The multi-agency project was written by Carol and Hank Fischer.