C. M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (Montana)


The sweep of America’s west along the Missouri River “breaks” with their abundant wildlife is the site of C. M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, some of which appears today almost as when firstviewed by the explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805.

A cow elk grazes with her calf on river-bottom grasses. White-tailed deer forage on skunkbrush sumac. A mule deer finds shade under a juniper. Fluffy Canada goslings toddle after stately parents.

Bull elk “bugle” and challenge one another with antlers spreading five feet (1.5 m) and more.

Sage and sharp-tailed grouse inflate gold and lavender throat sacs and stamp the ground at dawn on traditional spring courtship dancing “leks.”

Sturdy pronghorn antelopes hurtle across grasslands at speeds clocked up to 70 miles an hour (117 kph), fastest and keenest-sighted North American mammal, with protruding eyes that see both forward and backward and discern small moving objects four miles (6+ km) away. Bighorn sheep clamber up rocks.

Prairie dog “towns” cover thousands of acres, a whole interlocking ecosystem shared with burrowing owls, desert cottontail rabbits, rattlesnakes, and now black-footed ferrets, highly endangered but successfully reintroduced here. Mountain plovers use the gravelly substrate around the burrows as nest sites.

Preying on the frolicsome little “dogs” along with the ferrets are coyotes, badgers, bobcats, and a whole range of raptors including golden eagles and ferruginous hawks. One golden eagle family grew up in a cottonwood tree a quarter mile (0.4 km) from a “dog-town” where an eagle parent went daily for dinner as to a neighborhood supermarket.

Some 45 species of mammals share these 1,720 square miles (4,453 km2) in north-central Montana with 240 bird species as well as reptiles, plants, and fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaurs which once lived here.

Raptors are attracted to this wild area—swift prairie falcons, merlins, kestrels, red-tailed and rough-legged hawks, and five kinds of owls. Short-eared owls hunt the grasslands on fall afternoons. Snowy owls can be seen in winter.

White pelicans and 20 waterfowl species stop in migration and some stay to nest along with great blue herons, ospreys, endangered piping plovers and least terns, and attractive mountain and western bluebirds, lark buntings, horned larks, and Bohemian waxwings.

Paddlefish, strange ancient creatures with no true bones, grow to around 140 pounds and more (63+ kg).

This wild western refuge, named after the revered cowboy artist who, uninstructed, magnificently painted life here in the last century, still is not fully explored. Visitors today can take the winding 20-mile (37-km) auto-tour route or hike less-traveled trails, camping by the same streams Lewis and Clark did in a wilderness so vast and rugged that Clark said “I do not think it will ever be settled,” a prediction that fortunately proved correct.

Best times to visit are late spring and fall. Motels are in nearby Jordan, Fort Peck, Glasgow, Malta, Lewiston. Camping is permitted everywhere.

 Prairie dogs may have most sophisticated of all animal languages, recent studies suggest, able, for example, to communicate warning calls specifically identifying at least eight different predators. These intelligent ground squirrels—unrelated to dogs—construct complicated burrows extending 100 feet (30 m) or more. Their colonies or “towns” historically spread over much of the western U.S. One, in Texas, covered 25,000 square miles (65,000 km2) and housed some 400 million “dogs.” They have been widely eradicated due to claims—unjustified by some views—that they destroy grazing range, and are being considered for threatened status.

Prairie dogs may have most sophisticated of all animal languages, recent studies suggest, able, for example, to communicate warning calls specifically identifying at least eight different predators. These intelligent ground squirrels—unrelated to dogs—construct complicated burrows extending 100 feet (30 m) or more. Their colonies or “towns” historically spread over much of the western U.S. One, in Texas, covered 25,000 square miles (65,000 km2) and housed some 400 million “dogs.” They have been widely eradicated due to claims—unjustified by some views—that they destroy grazing range, and are being considered for threatened status.


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