Wildlife refuges are areas, lands and waters, set aside to conserve fish, wildlife, and plants. Refuge managers aim to maintain and improve natural habitats.
Montana has 24 wildlife refuges/districts, operated and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuges are amazing places to visit if natural environments are of interest.
Nine of the refuges are found in western mountainous regions and fifteen more are in the central and eastern parts of the state. All kinds are environments are represented, such as wetlands, prairies, uplands, badlands, and river breaks.
Visitors at refuges experience many kinds of birds, mammals, and plants. Some favorites:
Buffalo at the National Bison Range
Black-footed ferrets, bighorn sheep, and cottonwood trees at C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
Greater sage grouse and golden eagles at Grass Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Moose and trumpeter swans at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
Canada geese, wild turkeys, red-winged blackbirds at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge
Choose one or more refuges that appeal to you and study the area(s) before you go. A F&WS online map shows locations of refuges and links to refuge Websites.
Be sure to bring a pair of high-quality binoculars for viewing nature close-up. Take along Montana nature field guides too. A copy of Montana Nature Set: Field Guides to Wildlife, Birds, and Wildflowers of Montana by James Kavanaugh may suffice. Buy on Amazon dot com.
Enjoy and learn about nature in the great Montana outdoors.
Glacier National Park has an abundance of wildlife. The wildlife thrive in natural habitats far from human civilization. Glacier wildlife are protected in a natural environment. Here are a few of the species viewed by many visitors to the park.
Okay, so you are going to Glacier National Park. Your journey will take you through the center of the park on Going-to-the-Sun Road, an iconic mountain highway. Going-to-the-Sun Road runs west to east from the town of West Glacier to Saint Mary, Montana, over a distance of about 53 miles. The road passes through America’s most spectacular wilderness country.
Glacier is a land of mountains. Pushing up toward the clouds, mountain peaks near Going-to-the-Sun Road reach elevations as high as 10,014 feet (Mount Siyeh) and are often in view. That gorgeous mountains, pristine alpine lakes, and alpine valleys and meadows are all bundled together is a huge part of the allure of Glacier National Park.
Going-to-the-Sun Road was constructed in the early part of the 20th century, and it opened for the public in 1933. After eleven years of construction, 1921-1932, the road was completed. Drivers will experience a narrow, winding road, with some hairpin curves along the way. This is a two-lane and paved road, an engineering masterpiece.
Going-to-the-Sun Road features spectacular scenery in every direction, mountains, forests, waterfalls, alpine lakes, rock walls, and alpine valleys. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, grizzly bears, and other wildlife live here and can often be seen not far from the road.
Historic lodges and engineering marvels, such as tunnels and bridges, add to the wonder of it all. Many scenic outlooks along the road allow motorists to stop, take pictures, and simply enjoy.
From the Park’s entrance near the town of West Glacier (3,198 feet in elevation), Going-to-the-Sun Road follows McDonald Valley for several miles in a northeasterly direction, gradually gaining in elevation until the road reaches about 3,572 feet in elevation.
At this point, the road veers sharply to the northwest toward an area called the Loop. Here the road runs northwest for a short distance before it abruptly turns back to the southeast and continues in a southeasterly direction toward Logan Pass.
At the beginning of the Loop (elevation 3,572), the road starts its ascent up the side of the mountains. Along a path of several miles, Going-to-the-Sun Road increases in elevation, as it hugs to the side of the mountains, until it reaches Logan Pass at 6,646 feet elevation.
From the head of the Loop, going in a southeasterly direction, Going-to-the-Sun Road starts to get scary for some drivers. Along the shoulder of the road (passenger side of car), a steep cliff goes down slope, several hundred feet in many areas.
On the driver’s side is the rock face of the mountains. Drivers need not worry as a low speed limit and guardrails protect vehicles from going off the road. However, as if anyone needs a reminder, drivers must keep eyes centered on the road. Passengers can enjoy the awesome scenery.
At Logan Pass, Going-to-the-Sun Road starts a gradual descent to Saint Mary Lake at about 4,718 feet in elevation. The road runs along the north shore of Saint Mary Lake for about 9.9 miles before ending near the Park’s Saint Mary Visitor Center at an elevation of 4,495 feet.
Logan Pass is not unusually high in elevation by Montana standards. Near Red Lodge in south-central Montana, the Beartooth Highway starts from Red Lodge at 5,568 feet in elevation and ascends into the mountains until the highway reaches Beartooth Pass at an elevation of 10,947 feet.
Some have suggested that Going-to-the-Sun Road is less scary if driven from east to west. If this is the case, the face of the mountains is on the passenger side of the car and the steep cliff side (the drop-off) is one traffic lane over from the driver and thus seems less worrisome. Regardless, drivers must be extremely careful and keep eyes on the road ahead.
Accidents occasionally happen on the road. In July 2018, a two-vehicle collision snarled traffic for hours west of Logan Pass, near Triple Arches. No personal injuries in this one, but traffic from the West Entrance was stopped from entering the Park, and traffic that had reached Logan Pass in the east was turned back.
The wonders along Going-to-the-Sun Road are almost endless. A short list of things to experience and enjoy, traveling west to east, over the distance of 53 miles, includes:
START OF ROUTE: Apgar Visitor Center at west entrance to the park
Mile 3.0: Fabulous Lake McDonald, a 10-mile long glacial lake
Mile 10.9: Historic Lake McDonald Lodge
Mile 12.8: McDonald Falls
Mile 16.2: Avalanche Creek Campground
Mile 20.8: Start of The Loop at Goose Curve where the road veers sharply left to the northwest
Mile 23.3: West Side Tunnel, cut some 192 feet through a mountain
Mile: 23.9: Head of The Loop where the road bends back and continues in a southeasterly direction toward Logan Pass
Mile 29.8: Triple Arches, a 65 foot long stone bridge built across a gap in the mountain side
Mile 32.0: Logan Pass Visitor Center on the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet elevation
Mile 32.9: East Side Tunnel, a 408 feet long structure cut though a mountain
Mile 39.2: Saint Mary Lake, a 9.9-mile long glacial lake
Mile 43.0: Wild Goose Island in the middle of Saint Mary Lake
END OF ROUTE: Saint Mary Visitor Center and the town of Saint Mary
Due to deep snow blocking the roadway, a section of Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed during the winter months. A few reports say the snow can get over 80 feet deep at Logan Pass.
Officials at the Park do not give an exact date when the full length of the road will be open. They say opening is typically late June or early July. Usually the road remains open until the third Monday of October. However, portions of the road at lower elevations are open year-round giving travelers access to some locations and activities inside the Park. In alpine environments all depends on the weather which can change quickly, causing officials to close the road at any time.
Visitors flock to Glacier, some 3,049,839 came in 2019 alone. Many who travel on Going-to-the-Sun Road spend a half-day or longer to drive the full distance of the road. So much to see and do. When the journey is over, visitors take home memoires that will last a lifetime.
Lodging is limited along Going-to-the-Sun Road inside Glacier National Park. Guest rooms are available at Lake McDonald Lodge, Apgar Village Lodge and Cabins, and Motel Lake McDonald on the west side of the Park. Rising Sun Motor Inn and Cabins offers rooms near Saint Mary Lake on the east side of the Park.
Campgrounds are another option on Going-to-the-Sun Road inside Glacier National Park. Three campgrounds are on the west side of the Park: Apgar (194 sites); Sprague Creek (25 sites); and Avalanche (87 sites). The east side of the Park has two campgrounds: Rising Sun (83 sites); and Saint Mary (148 sites).
On any journey surprises are always best. However, in this case a quick read in advance is recommended. The book is Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s Highway to the Sky, by C.W. Guthrie.
Lose of a Young Person’s Life in Glacier NP
A tragedy occurred on Going-to-the-Sun Road on August 12, 2019. A car was traveling westbound from Logan Pass when rocks from the face of a mountain broke loose and fell to the road below hitting the car. A 14-year-old girl was killed and four others in the same vehicle were injured. NPS reported that the rockfall would have filled the bed on a small pickup truck.
Safety is always first on the minds of Park officials, but nothing could have averted this catastrophe. Of the sorrow and pain felt by the family, no words can convey.
The speed limit on Going-to-the-Sun Road is 45 miles per hour at lower elevations, 25 miles per hour at higher elevations (alpine areas).
There are no gas stations on Going-to-the-Sun Road. So, fill up in small towns near the west or east entrances to the Park: village of West Glacier or village of St. Mary.
Bring binoculars. Mountain goats hang out in high elevation, mountainous regions of Montana. The Montana FWP estimates that 5,900 mountain goats live in the state. Of the total, thirty-eight per cent are found in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.
Viewing mountains goats is easy, finding them is another matter. Mountain goats are not seen ambling along regular roadways as is commonly the case with other wildlife such as bears, buffalo, and elk. Go explore the backcountry is the best advice for finding mountain goats in their preferred habitat.
Given the large number of mountain goats in Glacier National Park, this may be a good place to go to see one of these magnificent animals. While mountain goats like to stay at higher elevations in the mountains, in Glacier they are often seen wandering on the park’s many trails.
Amy Grisak, a writer for the Great Falls Tribune, describes the best places to go for viewing mountain goats in Glacier National Park. A few hot spots are: Goat Lick along U.S. Highway 2 near Essex in the early season; Logan Pass; Sperry Trail and Gunsight Pass in the western part of the park; and in the area around Many Glacier, the eastern part of the park. At Many Glacier, mountain goats can be viewed high on cliffs above Iceberg Trail and along Ptarmigan Tunnel.
More mountain goats make their home in the cliffs and canyons of the Bitterroot Mountains south of Missoula. In a recent census, a Montana FWP biologist, Rebecca Moray, counted 13 mountain goats in Blodgett Canyon and even more goats in nearby canyons, says Perry Backus in the Missoulian. The Bitterroots are a rugged and wild region, so finding mountain goats here might be hard to do.
Closer to civilization, near Helena, a small number of mountain goats live in the Big Belt Mountains east of the city. Tourists on guided boat tours on the Missouri River through an area called Gates of the Mountains, a large canyon, can sometimes view mountain goats feeding high above the canyon’s walls.
Mountain goats are not usually on people’s radar. Nevertheless, they are a delight to see in the wild. You need some imagination to understand how the goats can climb, even run, on high, treacherous mountain cliffs. This is one of the mysteries that create so much interest in viewing mountain goats.
High interest and much progress in grizzly bear science is reported in a recent technical paper by John Sandy. This research appears in the journal Science and Technology Libraries.
Grizzly bears inhabit wilderness areas in the northwestern region of the lower forty-eight states, western Canada, and areas of Alaska. Because of the settlement of the west and loss of prime habitat, populations declined rapidly in the nineteenth century, and in 1975 federal action was taken to protect grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act. Since 1950 about 722 technical papers have been written on the grizzly bear. Major research has focused on ecology, conservation, reproductive biology, behavior, dietetics, anatomy, and physiology, among other topics. Due to geographic distribution of the species, much of the research has been carried out by authors and organizations in western regions of the United States and Canada where major grizzly populations exist. A significant number of technical papers appear in three key journals: Ursus, the Journal of Wildlife Management, and the Canadian Journal of Zoology. According to data in WorldCat, about 1,167 records, covering monographs and technical reports, contain information on grizzlies and present research findings. The bulk of monographs appeal mainly to a general audience. However, citation analysis reveals a core of highly cited technical papers, many written with an emphasis on special themes or topics, whereas others focus on the grizzly itself, all together advancing the science on this species.
More grizzly bears Grizzly bears live in wilderness areas of northwest Montana. By some estimates 300 grizzly bears live in Glacier National Park.
E. W. Nelson, in his book on the Wild Animals of North America, wrote that with the arrival of white men grizzlies became very shy and even the slightest unusual noise would cause a grizzly bear to run away. Nelson warned, however, a grizzly bear should still be considered dangerous.
Over many years, several people have been injured during grizzly bear encounters in the wild. In one incident two young girls were killed by grizzlies on the night of August 13, 1967 in Glacier National Park. In 2016, a mountain biker was killed by a grizzly as he rode on a trail in Glacier National Park.
You can see grizzly bears in captivity at Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in the town of West Yellowstone and at Montana Grizzly Encounter near Bozeman.