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Montana Birding and Nature Trail
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Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour Route

Missouri River Wild lands

The auto tour route samples an extensive refuge on both sides of the Missouri River that’s home to a keystone species—the prairie dog that, in turn, makes life possible for the endangered black-footed ferret and Mountain Plover.

 

Species of Note

(note: this list includes species for the whole refuge, not just the tour route)

Birds

  • Sage Grouse
  • Sharp-tailed Grouse
  • McCown’s Longspur
  • Chestnut-collared Longspur
  • Long-billed Curlew
  • Mountain Plover
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Bald Eagle
  • Golden Eagle
  • Ferruginous Hawk
  • Rough-legged Hawk
  • Swainson’s Hawk
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Green-tailed Towhee
  • Western Tanager
  • Wood Pewee
  • Lazuli Bunting
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Bullock’s Oriole
  • Eastern and Western Kingbird
Other Wildlife
  • Pronghorn
  • Elk
  • Mule Deer
  • White-tailed Deer
  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Mountain Lion
  • Coyote
  • Bobcat
  • Beaver
  • Black-tailed Prairie Dog
  • Prairie Rattlesnake
  • Bull Snake
  • Short-horned Lizard
  • Great Plains Toad
  • Tiger Salamander
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What to Do

Where do you go first when exploring a 1.1 million acre refuge that straddles 125 miles of the Missouri River, including the Fort Peck Reservoir? The 19-mile long auto tour route offers a reliable road for passenger car travel, and a taste of the refuge birding and wildlife viewing. The tour has 13 interpretive stops and takes about 2-3 hours to drive and view. But don’t stop there! Visitors are encouraged to lengthen their stay to explore prairie dog towns, expansive badlands, forested coulees, sagebrush steppe, mixed grass prairies and cottonwood river bottoms where elk herds graze as they have for thousands of years.

Please contact the refuge for information on other places to go and road conditions—always a concern in the plains. The headquarters can also send you the self-guided tour brochure or let you know where to pick one up.

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Field Notes

A Prairie Falcon races the winds by a lone butte. Pronghorn pass by on fleet hooves. Driving the tour route, you pass through sage, grass, riparian areas, and ponderosa pine/juniper coulees. On a spring dawn, the pop-popping sound of male courting Sage Grouse swirls into the frosty air. A Golden Eagle sails in, seeking an easy grouse meal. You continue on, as the day warms and venture off the tour route on a dirt road, where staff told you to look for an active prairie dog town.

Wildlife viewing at a prairie dog town can be the premier experience of the Trail for those who are patient and quiet observers. Finding a prairie dog town takes advice from refuge staff. Here, prairie dog towns can be in unusual locations, like coulees close to ponderosa pine that hide predators, including mountain lions and bobcats. Where colonies are close to water, tiger salamanders seek out prairie dog burrows to find ideal temperatures—not too hot or too cold. (The burrows stay approximately 41-50 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and 59-77 degrees in summer.) Vesper Sparrows sing from burrow mounds. Coyote pups frisk in the center of the colony. A Burrowing Owl pounces on a grasshopper. The prairie dogs bark and tussle. There’s never a dull moment.

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Conservation

Biologists call prairie dogs a keystone species. Their role is critical to the lives of a community of other species that depend on them. This refuge maintains both black-tailed prairie dog towns and the only populations of the endangered black-footed ferret in Montana. The ferret preys only on prairie dogs. In this area, mountain plovers also depend on prairie dog towns for habitat. That’s because prairie dog grazing keeps the land just the way these birds like it for nesting—with bare ground and very short grass. Burrowing Owls can’t dig their own holes, so hop in abandoned burrows for nesting. Ferruginous Hawks soar above the towns, hunting for prairie dogs. The closer you look, the more connections you find.

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Cultural Connection

Named for the cowboy artist Charlie Russell, the refuge evokes his grand landscape paintings of the nineteenth century. He captured for all of us the wild west before the end of the buffalo and the coming of the railroad, barbed wire fences and sodbusting. The Missouri River long attracted Native peoples. Their presence lingers in teepee rings and a buffalo jump. Old homesteads and cemeteries are a testament to the settlers’ era. North of the river is the Bell homestead and south of the river are a few old buildings - all that remains of Rocky Point, once a bustling town of traders, trappers, woodhocks, vigilantes and the site of a few hangings.

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Viewing Tip

To see more of the refuge beyond the tour route, check with the staff. Here are some places you might want to find if you have the right vehicle and roads are passable:

  • UL Bend area: bighorn sheep and elk; waterfowl at Valentine Creek
  • Siparyann elk viewing area (during the fall rut)
  • The CMR has over 180,000 acres of proposed and designated wilderness areas for those seeking the wilderness experience- these are on the CMR map

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Best Seasons

April-October in the early morning and late evening. Grouse dancing grounds (called leks) are best viewed late March to early May.

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Getting There

View Google Map

From Malta, go south on U.S. Highway 191. Between mile marker 88 and 89 turn east onto gravel road #101. The Auto Tour Route is 19 miles long with 13 interpretive stops. Drive time is 2-3 hours.

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Facilities

Gravel roads, picnic facilities, camping sites, restrooms. A bird list for the refuge is available from refuge headquarters and field stations.

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Contact

US Fish & Wildlife Service, Charles M. Russell NWR, PO Box 110, Lewistown, MT 59457; Ph. (406) 538-8706; website: http://cmr.fws.gov.

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