Where to Watch
Montana's diversity of landscape leads to a diversity of wildlife. From the lush coniferous forests of Western Montana to the rolling prairies of Eastern Montana, animals are everywhere. You may be planning an outing expressly to see wildlife, or you may be out camping, fishing, skiing or any number of other things. Chances are, you'll see wildlife; all you have to do is take time to look.
Different parts of Montana support different species of wildlife. In general, you'll find different habitat types support different animals. (Montana has six distinct "Ecoregions." See the Montana Ecoregions section below to find out more.)
Deep forests are the best places to see elk and mule deer, as well as an occasional bear. If you look above you in the pine trees, you might spot woodpeckers, finches and chickadees. This forest habitat covers about 30 percent of Montana (mostly Western Montana), and is usually higher in elevation than other habitats. As you would expect, most of the wildlife in this habitat area depend on the dense trees, in one way or another, for their survival.
Along Montana's lowland streams and rivers, in the cottonwoods and shrubs, you're sure to see white-tailed deer, beaver and—if you're quiet—great blue heron fishing the pools. This habitat is less than one percent of the land in Montana, but amazingly, it supports more than half of the state's wild species. The wildlife in this habitat are sensitive to changes in the river or stream; because of this sensitivity, these areas generally have a very fragile balance.
In Montana's marshes, look to the tall cattails and flat water for painted turtles, muskrats, and ducks. Hear a song in the breeze? It's probably a red-winged blackbird. In this type of habitat, standing pools of water attract abundant waterfowl; you're likely to see several species on the water at the same time, like one big happy family. Abundant water, of course, brings abundant insects. And insects bring song birds. Like the streamside habitat, marshes are less than one percent of Montana's land area, but they support a tremendous amount of wildlife.
Where Montana's prairie seems lonely and quiet, stop for a second look; you'll probably see pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and jackrabbits. On the ground you can find the nest of a kill-deer, with eggs the color of the soil. In the air, hawks play in the wind. Montana's prairies comprise more than 65 percent of the landscape-nearly all of it in Eastern Montana. The most notable thing about the prairie grasslands habitat is the interrelationship between the wildlife species that make their home there. Pronghorn graze in the prairie dog towns, and the burrows the prairie dogs dig eventually become homes for other animals including burrowing owls and even an occasional rattlesnake.
So what are the best wildlife viewing areas? Those that include more than one type of habitat. For example, prairie grasslands are generally adjacent to marshes and wetlands, or on either side of a lowland streamside habitat. These areas with "habitat overlap" offer the most wildlife activity.
Although each habitat is distinctive, many species of wildlife are quite comfortable in more than one type of habitat. For instance, elk travel in search of food during the winter, moving from the forests into the grasslands. At certain times of the year, migrating birds can show up just about anywhere, while coyotes and magpies have learned to make the most of whatever habitat they find themselves in. Determining the habitat will help you, as a wildlife watcher, be on the lookout for the different kinds of wildlife each habitat sustains.
Before we talk about Montana's ecosystems, we should answer a basic question: what exactly is an ecosystem? A popular, and fairly simple, definition is "a community of organisms and their physical environment interacting as an ecological unit." That means an ecosystem can be very small—a pond, for instance—or very large. The earth itself can be considered one giant ecosystem. So definitive borders for ecosystems really are non-existent, and a state like Montana is literally home to millions of ecosystems. But since we don't have room or time to talk about millions of ecosystems, let's just narrow it down to three major ones: the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the Salmon-Selway Ecosystem.
Remember the remark about no definitive borders for ecosystems? That's exactly the case with all of these. The Northern Continental Divide is shared with Canada, our neighbor to the north. The Greater Yellowstone stretches into Wyoming, and the Salmon-Selway runs into Idaho.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, also known as the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, includes the mountainous regions of northwestern Montana, southwestern Alberta, and southeastern British Columbia. At the center of the ecosystem are Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks and the Bob Marshall-Great Bear-Scapegoat Wilderness complex, as well as surrounding areas. The ecosystem offers major habitat for literally thousands of animal species such as grizzly bear, black bear, wolverines, mountain lions, migratory birds, and even hundreds of butterfly species.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as you can probably guess, includes Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area. It comprises about 14 million acres, making it the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the world. At its northern end are the Beartooth Mountains, and it spreads across several other mountain ranges south through the Tetons. In this ecosystem, you'll find wildlife species as diverse as trumpeter swans, grizzly bear, elk, bison, wolves and many others.
The Salmon-Selway Ecosystem includes the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in western Montana, and the River of No Return and Frank Church Wilderness areas in Idaho. All together, it comprises roughly 11 million acres. This complex ecosystem serves as home to many species which are listed as sensitive and endangered, such as the Rocky Mountain Wolf, Chinook Salmon, Fisher, Northern Goshawk, Lynx, Wolverine, Boreal Owl, Pine Marten, and many others.
Now that we've covered ecosystems, let's take it one step further by looking at ecoregions. Ecoregions consist of many ecosystems, sharing similar plants, animals, climate and terrain. Montana's six major ecoregions coincide largely with Montana's six tourism regions:
- Northwest Montana Forest (generally, Northwest Montana's Glacier Country)
- Southwest Montana Forest (Southwest Montana, including all of Gold West Country and portions of Yellowstone Country)
- Glaciated Plains and Mountains (Northcentral Montana's Russell Country)
- Non-glaciated Plains and Mountains (Southcentral Montana, including portions of Yellowstone Country and Custer Country)
- Glaciated Eastern Plains (Northeast Montana's Missouri River Country)
- Non-glaciated Eastern Plains (Southeast Montana's Custer Country)
Northwest Montana Forest and Southwest Montana Forest These regions of Montana are filled with many coniferous trees, and the occasional deciduous hardwood. The terrain is mountainous, with broad valley bottoms. Wildlife that populate Montana's Montana Forests include whitetail deer, moose, wolverines, ptarmigans, bighorn sheep, bobcats, mountain lions, lynx, grizzly bear, black bear, and many bird species.
Glaciated Plains and Mountains; Glaciated Eastern Plains These regions feature plains and rolling hills carved by glacial till centuries ago. Steep slopes can border some of the rivers, and vegetation is dominated by native prairie grasses. Wildlife found here can include grouse, mule deer, pronghorn antelopes, jackrabitts, foxes, coyotes and others. This was also the natural habitat of most bison.
Non-glaciated Plains and Mountains; Non-glaciated Eastern Plains As you might guess, these plains weren't formed by glacial till. The landscape includes gently sloping to rolling shale plains; some steep, flat-topped buttes are present, as well. Typical wildlife include grassland birds (golden eagle, short-tailed grouse, sage grouse), mule deer, pronghorn antelopes, foxes and others.
Montana has numerous Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and 15 National Wildlife Refuges that protect vital habitat for elk, deer, ducks, geese, pheasants, grouse and many other kinds of wildlife. The refuges (along with nearby towns) are:
- Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Great Falls): waterfowl, migratory birds
- Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (Malta): waterfowl
- Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (Lewistown): deer, elk, bighorn sheep
- Hailstone National Wildlife Refuge (Lewistown): waterfowl, deer
- Lake Mason National Wildlife Refuge (Lewistown): waterfowl
- Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge (Stevensville): osprey, waterfowl, elk, bear, moose
- Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Medicine Lake): waterfowl, migratory birds
- National Bison Range (Moiese): bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope
- Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge (Ronan): waterfowl, migratory birds, owls
- Pablo National Wildlife Refuge (Pablo): migratory birds, loons
- Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (Lima): trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes
- Swan River National Wildlife Refuge (Creston/Kalispell): waterfowl, migratory birds, moose, bobcat, bear
- UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge (Lewistown): migratory birds
- War Horse National Wildlife Refuge (Lewistown): migratory birds
Watchable Wildlife Program
For visitors who want to catch a glimpse (or a photo) of Montana's wildlife, the state participates in the national "Watchable Wildlife" program, identified by signs all across the state (look for the white binoculars on a brown sign). The goals of this program are to: 1) Provide enhanced opportunities for the public to enjoy wildlife on public and private lands; 2) Contribute to local economic development; 3) Promote learning about wildlife and habitat needs; and 4) Enhance active public support for resource conservation. A panel of wildlife experts from state and federal organizations selected all sites. These sites point wildlife watchers to everything from large game habitats to meadows filled with butterflies. A companion "Watchable Wildlife" guide book is also available in bookstores, which includes detailed descriptions of each viewing site, maps, information about access and viewing tips.