Montana Outdoors Best 100 list

From the Montana Outdoors July-August 2013 issue

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Have you seen and done the best of Montana’s outdoors? Use this checklist to keep track of outside activities you’ve experienced and sights you’ve seen. Keep it handy this summer as you explore Montana, and check off each new accomplishments. If you or others you know ever achieve all 100, let us know at montanaoutdoors@mt.gov.

download Click here to view/print the Best 100 checklist


Montana's Best 61-80

(In no particular order or rank)

61

Pointing dogHunt upland birds over a pointing dog

Tens of thousands of residents and nonresidents spend winter, spring, and summer waiting for bird season, when they can return to Montana’s prairie and hunt upland species behind an English setter, Brittany, German wirehair, griffon, or other pointing breed.

Pointers are trained to follow bird scent and then, when near their prey, stop, raise a front paw and aim their muzzle at the target. The bird freezes, hoping it hasn’t been seen. And this is the beauty of pointing breeds. Rather than having to sprint to catch a Lab, springer, or other flushing breed that chases after the bird with intent to catch it, you can walk (though briskly) toward the point. There is time to pause and collect yourself before moving in ahead of your dog and flushing the bird. Which, ideally, you then proceed to drop with a single shot. It’s about as gentlemanly as hunting can get.

Where: Most upland bird hunting with pointing dogs occurs in central and eastern Montana, though pointing breeds are also used for ruffed and dusky (blue) grouse in the state’s western mountains.

When: Hun and grouse seasons open September 1 and end January 1 (except sage-grouse, which closes November 1). Pheasant season opens in mid-October and ends January 1.

HOW: Find someone who owns a pointing breed and get yourself invited on a hunt. Learn shotgun shooting and dog handling basics from the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program: fwp.mt.gov/education/bow.

Bonus: The only thing upland bird hunters love more than hunting is arguing over whose breed or dog is better. Join the debate.


62

CurlewSee a long-billed curlew

This unmistakable prairie bird is the only species possessing such an improbably long, downward-curving bill. Though technically a shorebird, the long-billed curlew nests in Montana’s northern prairie, using its slate-gray, 5- to 8-inch-long bill to pull earthworms from moist ground. On its wintering grounds along the Baja California and Gulf Coasts, the curlew probes deep into wet sand for shrimp and small crabs.

The bird has a buff-colored body with mottled coloration. It is sometimes mistaken for a marbled godwit, which is similarly shaped and also equipped with a long bill. But the curlew, the world’s largest shorebird, is much taller (23 inches compared to 18 inches), and its bill curves down, while the godwit’s is straight or slightly upward tilting.

Where: Wet areas of central Montana grasslands, especially between the Rocky Mountain Front and the CMR National Wildlife Refuge

When: The best viewing is in May during mating season.

How: First, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (birds.cornell.edu) and listen to the various curlew calls. Then drive through short- or mixed-grass prairie in spring or summer and listen for the calls before scanning the source area with binoculars.

Bonus: The long-billed curlew is also known as the candlestick bird. Candlestick Point in San Francisco is named after the bird. Candlestick Park Stadium inherited the name.


Going to the Sun Highway63

Take the Going-to-the-Sun Road drive

Perhaps nowhere in the world can you see so much spectacular scenery without leaving your vehicle. Running from West Glacier to St. Mary, the 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road is the only route through Glacier National Park. Along the way the scenic roadway hugs the Garden Wall, a sharp-edged ridge carved by glaciers, and kisses the Weeping Wall, where springs fed by melting snow cascade down a steep, dark embarkment onto passing vehicles. The drive to the top also weaves past pullouts overlooking vast valleys below while climbing more than 3,000 feet to summit at Logan Pass on the Continental Divide.

The pass is a great spot to see mountain goats, pikas, hoary marmots, and wild sheep. Sightings of distant grizzlies are not uncommon.

The road’s breathtaking scenery is matched only by the engineering audacity that went into building it. More than half the road, completed in 1932, was carved by hand out of solid rock using pickaxes and dynamite. A ten-year multimillion- dollar construction project to repair deteriorating portions of the 81-year-old road is not quite finished. Though the road remains open, expect periodic delays caused by repair crews working on the narrow route.

Where: Glacier National Park between West Glacier and St. Mary

When: Due to deep snow, the road usually doesn’t open until mid-June and closes in late September. Note: If the parking lot at Logan Pass is full, park at the pullout below (east of) the pass and hike up the road.

BONUS 1: Avoid driving off a cliff while gawking at waterfalls—and help reduce traffic to boot—by taking the park’s wonderfully restored propane-propelled red buses. The ride includes colorful narration by the drivers. Or park at one of the many lower-elevation shuttle stops and take a free shuttle bus to and from Logan Pass.

Bonus 2: To see how winter socks in the park each year and the tons of snow that has to be removed from the road every May and June to facilitate travel. Click here for road status.


White Cliffs of the Missouri

64

Float the Missouri River White Cliffs Area

The White Cliffs of the Missouri River float was a favorite getaway of the late Helena resident and Undaunted Courage author Stephen Ambrose. “It is today as Lewis saw it,” Ambrose wrote in his sweeping story of the Corps of Discovery’s famous journey. “The White Cliffs can be seen only from a small boat or canoe. Put in at Fort Benton and take out three or four days later at Judith Landing. Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is number one. We have made the trip ten times.”

Designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1976, this 149-mile stretch of water and surrounding 130,000 acres of land remain largely unchanged from when the Corps of Discovery crew members hauled their canoes and pirogues through the area in 1805. Locally known as the Breaks or Badlands, the highly eroded landscape cuts through miles of prairie before dropping precipitously at the river’s edge.

The area’s centerpiece is the White Cliffs, which Meriwether Lewis described as having “a most romantic appearance.” Escarpments of white limestone and dikes of volcanic rock rise from the shoreline; eroded rock pillars resemble ancient city ruins, with towers, fortifications, and spires. It’s not uncommon for boaters to run aground while gawking at the remarkable geological marvels.

Where: Most trips begin at the tiny burg of Virgelle, about 50 miles northeast of Great Falls, and end at Judith Landing, the halfway point through the Wild and Scenic River stretch and next to the bridge where Route 236 crosses the Missouri, 55 miles south of Havre as the crow flies.

When: Mid-May to late September. The first and last few weeks of the floating season require warm clothing in case of harsh weather.

HOW: Float trips can be taken on your own or with an outfitter. Either way you’ll need a shuttle back to the put-in after the three- to four-day float. Find outfitters in Loma and Fort Benton.

Bonus: Bring a fishing rod and try to catch some of the river’s channel catfish, shovelnose sturgeon, freshwater drum, and other species. The fish generally hang out in eddies.


Caddis hatch65

Fish the Mother’s Day caddis hatch

The Mother’s Day caddis, also known as Brachycentrus and Grannom, is a relatively large (sizes 16 to 14), dark insect that produces one of the year’s first big hatches on many Montana rivers. The hatch takes place once water temperatures reach 50 to 53 degrees (depending on the river) and stay there for a few days. Because mid-May is such a variable time of year, with river flow, temperature, and water clarity changing daily, the hatch is notoriously hard to predict. Mother’s Day is a good bet for the peak time but not a guarantee.

Where: The Big Hole, Yellowstone (from Emigrant to Big Timber), and lower Madison are regarded as the top rivers for the Mother’s Day caddis hatch, but tributaries and other local rivers also see hatches around the same time.

When: As mentioned above, action starts when water temperatures reach a certain level and stay that way. Starting May 1, call local fly shops or check their websites for the latest news. The best dry action will usually be from midmorning to early afternoon. Fish caddis pupae imitations under the surface at other times.

HOW: It depends on what stage the hatch is in. During the morning, larval and pupal patterns are best for nymphing with strike indicators. Two standbys are the Prince Nymph and the Deep Sparkle Pupa. When fish start rising, try any number of dark caddis flies with a pupa pattern as a dropper. Ask at local shops for the best flies on nearby waters.

Bonus: The peak of the hatch can actually be the worst fishing. The fish consume so many naturals they become full and stop eating. Also, finding your fly among the zillions of naturals on the water can be nearly impossible for you or a trout. Often the best fishing occurs on days of a decent but not phenomenal hatch.


66

See wild sheep at Koo-Koo-Sint Viewing Site

bighorn sheepEach year from late fall to spring, bighorn sheep gather near this small pullout about 10 miles east of Thompson Falls. The animals are escaping deep snow on the surrounding Koo-Koo-Sint Ridge and feeding on vegetation along the mountain foothills down to the highway.

Koo-Koo-Sint—“Man Who Looks at Stars”—was the name given to Canadian explorer, surveyor, cartographer, and naturalist David Thompson by local Flathead Indians. Thompson, the first white to survey this region, is to northwestern Montana what Lewis and Clark are to the rest of the state. In 1808 Thompson and his men descended the Kootenai River from Canada into what is now Montana and Idaho. The following year, near today’s Thompson Falls, the explorer built Saleesh House (later called Flathead House), the first Montana trading post west of the Rockies.

A monument to Thompson and the site of Saleesh House (the structure no longer exists) are near the wild sheep viewing site.

Where: 15 miles east of Thompson Falls on Montana Highway 200

When: Late November and December, and March through May, when the sheep are at lower elevations eating new grass.

WARNING: Bighorns here are too often killed by vehicles. Slow down and watch the road carefully for signs of wild sheep.

Bonus: It’s challenging to distinguish adult females from young males, because their horns are nearly identical in size. Ewes often have lambs nearby trying to nurse. Also, watch the sheep urinate. Males lean a bit forward, while females squat slightly.


Redband Trout

67

Catch a Columbia River interior redband trout

Almost all rainbow trout in Montana are descendants of coastal rainbows from California hatcheries stocked here as early as the 1880s. Montana is home to only a single native rainbow trout species, the Columbia River interior redband. This fish is native to the Kootenai River and its tributaries upstream to the Fisher River, a few miles from Libby Dam.

After California rainbows were stocked in Montana streams containing redbands, the two rainbow subspecies hybridized, making genetically pure natives increasingly rare. Today genetically undiluted stocks of redbands exist only in the upper reaches of creeks where drainage culverts, small waterfalls, or other barriers have prevented hatchery rainbows from moving upstream.

A variation of the redband trout is the steelhead, which moves from the Pacific Ocean up the Columbia River into Idaho’s Snake River Basin and British Columbia’s Fraser River system.

Where: Upper reaches of tributaries of the Fisher River, which flows north and meets the Kootenai River just below Libby Dam.

When: The best fishing for redband trout, as with all rainbows, is in midsummer.

Bonus: Each spring a large, lake-dwelling strain of the redband trout known as the Gerard rainbow swims upstream (north) from Kootenay Lake in British Columbia to the Lardeau River to spawn. Thousands of years ago, some Gerards may have also migrated south through the Idaho Panhandle into Montana to spawn in the Kootenai River and its tributaries. Over time, some of those fish may have remained and formed our state’s resident redband trout populations.


Elk

68

Go elk hunting

For tens of thousands of resident and nonresident elk hunters, nothing signifies Montana better than its ample opportunities to pursue these grand animals. Elk hunting requires physical strength and stamina, woodsmanship skills, and the ability to navigate remote backcountry areas. This is not something you do on a whim. It requires research, scouting, and spending long hours in the forest. But the 100,000 hunters who pursue elk here each fall say the potential payoff is well worth the effort.

Where: Most elk in Montana live west of a line from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone National Park, and most of those occur in the state’s southwestern \ region. Elk are found on several million acres of national forests open to public hunting, though increasing numbers are finding refuge on private property.

When: Various elk seasons run from early September (archery) through late November (firearms).

HOW: If you’ve never hunted elk before, the best place to start is FWP’s free publication, “Welcome to Montana Elk Hunting,” available on-line here, or at any department office. An easier but more expensive option is to hire an outfitter (montanaoutfitters.org).

Bonus: Don’t become obsessed with trying to kill a massive bull like the one shown here or on covers of hunting magazines. Those big males are extremely difficult to find, much less kill—especially for someone just starting out. Most hunters’ first elk is a cow, and they are plenty thrilled achieving that.


Sharp-tailed grouse

69

See sage-grouse and sharp-tailed grouse on their spring mating grounds

Sage-grouse and sharp-tailed grouse are closely related prairie birds that conduct their mating rituals in early spring. Just before sunup, males and females fly from surrounding lands to open areas known as leks. There, the males strut or dance to lure females for mating.

After the male sage-grouse spreads the feathers of his spiky tail, he inflates then rapidly deflates large air sacs on his chest to make a liquid gurgling sound—poik, poik, poik—known as booming. Some say the sound resembles the soft pop of distant balloons.

The male sharptail keeps his tail tightly bound but puffs out the white feathers at the base. He bends forward and holds his wings straight out parallel to the ground while stomping his feet rapidly in staccato fashion, like the keys of a typewriter, a behavior known as dancing.

Where: Sage-grouse: eastern Montana in and around the CMR National Wildlife Refuge, in sagebrush flats in the state’s southeast, and in Beaverhead and Madison Counties in the southwest. Sharptails: Central and eastern Montana, especially north of the Hi-Line.

When: March and April. Reach leks before sunup and settle down quietly to avoid spooking the birds.

When: Call an FWP or BLM office in sharptail or sage-grouse range and ask the area biologist for advice on where to find leks. Let him or her know you understand that human presence can disrupt mating and that you are open to advice on ways to reduce possible disturbance.

NOTE: Getting too close and scaring the birds from a lek disrupts mating activities. Stay at least 100 yards away and use binoculars or a spotting scope for a closer look.

Bonus: If you see the birds fly off in a hurry, look skyward. They might have spotted a golden eagle or other raptor overhead. Wait a few minutes. The birds will likely return after the predator flies off.


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70

Join the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Chickadee ornamentEvery year from mid-December through early January, hundreds of Montana volunteers across the state head outside for one day to count as many different birds and bird species as they can within a 15-mile radius. This ritual, the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC), has been going on in Montana for 104 years and nationwide for 113 years, making it the world’s longest-running citizen science wildlife census.

The National Audubon Society and other organizations use data collected in the long-term census to assess the health of bird populations and help guide conservation action.

The CBC is a great way to meet fellow birders, improve bird identification skills, and spend time in prime bird-watching sites. You don’t need birding expertise to take part, just a willingness to look closely.

Where: The counts are conducted throughout Montana at roughly 30 different sites.

When: December 14 through January 5

HOW: Learn more by visiting the Montana Audubon CBC website page at mtaudubon.org/birds/cbc.

Bonus: The record for most species (90) recorded during a Montana CBC was set in the Bigfork area in 2011.


 

Aspen

71

See quaking aspen in fall

For a short time each fall, stands of quaking aspen that just a few weeks earlier blended into surrounding conifer forests suddenly light up. As daylight shortens, the green chlorophyll in their leaves disappears. That reveals the yellow color existing there all along but masked by the chlorophyll. The water-loving aspen, often found in ravines that catch extra precipitation, brighten the dark green mountainsides with streaks of glorious yellow and gold. Then, with the first few hard frosts and strong winds, the leaves drop and the mountainsides look much like they did before, leaving you to wonder: Was that wild burst of shimmering yellow just a dream?

Where: Quaking aspen are generally found in small, scattered groves west of the Continental Divide, but large woodlands exist along the Rocky Mountain Front, especially on the eastern border of Glacier National Park. Aspen are sometimes visible from afar in late spring and summer, when their leaves take on a bright green or silvery sheen, making thickets stand out slightly against the darker green of surrounding pines and firs.

When: Aspen reach their full fall glory between late September in northwestern Montana and mid-October in the state’s southwestern region.

Bonus: Because quaking aspen are food for many species and grow in moist areas containing other vegetation, they are great places to find wildlife, especially moose and ruffed grouse.


Mountain lion paw72

Tie a fly

In a state so rich in fly-tying tradition, every fly angler needs to sit down at a table at least once and fabricate a few artificial aquatic insects. Montanans are known for their fly-tying expertise and innovation—from Dan Bailey’s world-renowned mail-order shop (above) in Livingston (for years the largest manufacturer of artificial flies in the United States, producing up to 750,000 flies annually) to George Grant’s woven-hair flies and Al Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis, to the popular Sparkle Dun, X-Caddis, and other patterns created by Craig Mathews of West Yellowstone. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Tying a fly can be easy or hard, depending on your manual dexterity, the quality of instruction, and, especially, the pattern itself. With practice, easy-to-tie flies like the Pheasant Tail Nymph, Hare’s Ear Nymph, and various caddis and midge pupae can be tied in just a few minutes. Others, such as Stimulators, Royal Wulffs, stonefly nymphs, various Muddlers, and any dry fly with a grizzly hackle wing, can have you hunched over a vise for hours trying to get it right—and convince you that paying $2.95 for a fly isn’t so outrageous after all.

Even more satisfying than tying a fly is catching a fish with it.

Where: It’s nearly impossible to learn fly tying from a book or YouTube video. Take a class at a nearby fly shop.

COST: You can get started tying flies for less than $100. Basic gear includes a vise, sewing scissors, bobbin, bodkin, various threads, and materials for the flies. There’s no need for costly hackle capes, hair stackers, or whip finishers unless you want to expand your repertoire.

Bonus: If you learn to tie just one fly, make it the Elk Hair Caddis. It’s easy to do, deadly on trout, and pays tribute to one of the state’s great fly tiers, Al Troth, who passed away in 2012.


Roosevelt Arch Yellowstone

73

Walk under the Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone National Park

Montanans don’t like to admit it, but only about 5 percent of Yellowstone National Park is actually in the Treasure State. The rest, except a sliver in Idaho, lies in Wyoming.

Still, one of the park’s most iconic monuments sits within Montana: the Roosevelt Arch just outside Gardiner. The five-story-tall structure was built in 1903 as the park’s northern entrance. The idea was to give the wild, open landscape a visible gateway for visitors coming from the Northern Pacific Railway’s newly built Reamer railroad depot, the disembarkment point for train travelers arriving from Livingston. (The railway was built along the Yellowstone River’s west bank, opposite today’s U.S. Highway 89, which, from Yankee Jim Canyon to Gardiner, runs along the east bank). This imposing stone monument, dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt, stands a half mile out of town and several hundred yards from the modern entrance. An inscription at the top reads “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

Where: After entering Gardiner on U.S. Highway 89, cross the bridge over the Yellowstone River, turn right (seemingly away from the park), and follow a horseshoe turn that takes you through the arch. Watch out for tourists who at all times of year take photographs of each other standing beneath or next to the stone structure.

When: Year-round. The arch is lit up every evening.

Bonus: Imagine President Roosevelt giving a speech to roughly 2,000 attendees of the grand opening in 1903: “The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world,” he said. “This park was created and is now administered for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...it is the property of Uncle Sam and therefore of us all.”


74

See (and hear) a prairie rattlesnake

Prairie rattlesnakeWe’re not saying anyone should go near these potentially dangerous reptiles. But rattlesnakes are a constant presence in much of Montana’s outdoors, and it’s part of that experience to at least once see one from a distance or hear the buzz of its rattle.

Also known as the western rattlesnake, the prairie rattler is found in open, arid country and ponderosa pine savannahs. It often dens on slopes in areas with rock outcrops.

Rattlesnake bites are extremely rare and deaths even rarer. Of the hundreds of thousands of hunters, hikers, and backpackers traversing Montana each year, only half a dozen or so report being bitten, according to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver.

Rattlesnakes are shy. If left alone, they won’t bother people. But if one thinks it will be stepped on or otherwise harmed, it may strike. If bitten, seek professional medical care as soon as possible (but don’t run, to maintain a slow heartbeat).

Stay safe in rattler country by wearing leather boots and keeping your hands away from rocky ledges, wood piles, brush, or other places that snakes frequent.

Where: Prairie rattlesnakes live in open, arid areas throughout Montana, especially rocky slopes.

When: You’ll most likely see or hear rattlesnakes from mid­summer through September. In winter the reptiles gather in large groups in rocky dens, and in early spring and late fall the cold-blooded reptiles are lethargic.

Bonus: Bull snakes, whose bite contains no venom, are often mistaken for rattlesnakes. These large snakes hiss and thrash their tails in dry grass, mimicking the rattlesnake’s rattle.


Ear Mountain prairie

75

Hike a prairie in June

This is one of the easiest yet most stimulating outdoor activities Montana has to offer. Simply drive to a prairie grassland, park your vehicle, and start walking. Look down at wildflowers and grasses, and look up to see raptors, pronghorn, and the endless horizon. Listen for birds. Bring a picnic, eat, and then take a nap, just as folks did there on Sunday afternoons 100 or even 1,000 years ago.

Where: Shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie is found throughout southwestern, central, and eastern Montana. Most public prairie lands are owned by the Bureau of Land Management and are indicated on BLM maps, available at sporting goods stores.

When: The best time to hear songbirds is May, to look at wildflowers is June, and to see grasses in their autumn hues is October.

How: Drive, park, and then start walking.

Bonus 1: Stick around until dusk. Nothing compares to a prairie sunset, where you can see the earth’s arc along the vast horizon.

Bonus 2: Take your prairie outing a step further by bringing along a sleeping bag and pad and spending the night under the stars. You’ll feel like a cowboy from a Zane Grey novel.


Westslope cutthroat trout76

Catch a westslope cutthroat trout

The colorful westslope cutthroat, known years ago as the blackspotted cutthroat, doesn’t grow as large or fight as hard as its cousin the closely related rainbow. But the cutthroat eagerly takes dry flies, making it especially popular when rainbows or the more finicky browns aren’t biting. What’s more, the westslope cutthroat is a native species (and Montana’s state fish), which adds to its appeal. The species is identified by bright orange-red slash markings on both sides of the lower jaw (though the identification is not definitive, as most rainbow-cutthroat hybrids also exhibit the orange-red slashes).

Where: Westslope cutts swim in mountain streams in western Montana both east and west of the Continental Divide. Because the species has been displaced and hybridized by rainbows, pure populations are increasingly difficult to find. Top cutthroat streams include the upper Bitterroot, Big Hole, Blackfoot, Rock Creek, and the South, Middle, and North Forks of the Flathead.

When: The best fishing is generally in midsummer.

Bonus: Montana’s other cutthroat species, the Yellowstone cutthroat, swims in the upper Yellowstone, Boulder, and Shields Rivers and their tributaries. The two species are difficult to tell apart. But because they don’t swim in the same streams, you can usually tell which is which by the waters where you are fishing.


Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park77

Explore Lewis and Clark Caverns

Most school kids take a field trip to this million-year-old limestone laby­rinth, one of the largest caverns in the United States. But if you’re new to Montana or haven’t visited this state park lately, you owe it to yourself to see these spectacular caves lined with stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites. A new lighting system illuminates the colorful, otherworldly formations and shapes created by mineral-laden water dripping and seeping from tall ceilings. A state parks guide leads all the tours.

Where: 19 miles west of Three Forks on Montana Highway 2 or 17 miles east of Whitehall on Montana Highway 2.

When: May 1 through September 30, with special candlelight tours offered during the winter holiday season.

Bonus 1: Townsend’s big-eared bats make the caverns their home. The caverns hold Montana’s largest colony of these rare flying mammals.

Bonus 2: Lewis and Clark made their way up the Jefferson River just below the caverns, but were unaware of the caverns’ existence and did not stop.


Channel catfish78

Fish a lazy warmwater river

Western Montana’s trout streams receive so much attention you’d think the state’s central and eastern regions were fishless. In fact these areas are laced with waters filled with channel catfish, freshwater drum, sauger, shovelnose sturgeon, walleye, smallmouth bass, and other species that are fun to catch, delicious, or both. One of the great things about fishing a warmwater river is that it’s not nearly as much work as fly-fishing for trout. All you need is a lawn chair, a spot along the bank, a spinning rod and reel, and a carton of night crawlers. Cast to an eddy or other break in the current and let your bait drift down to the fish. Wait for the line to twitch. Give the fish a few feet of slack to take the bait, then set the hook. Is it a 2-pound sauger? A 20-pound channel cat? Fishing these fertile, fish-filled rivers, you never know.

Where: Throughout central and western Montana. Some of the better-known fishing waters are the Marias, lower Missouri, Musselshell, Milk, lower Bighorn, Tongue, Powder, and lower Yellowstone Rivers.

When: May through September

Bonus: Pack a propane stove, frying pan, seasoned fillet dip, vegetable oil, and paper towels and have yourself a riverside fish fry.


79

Take the CMR National Wildlife Refuge auto tour

Station wagonAn easy and fun way to experience the wide-open prairie is to visit the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which starts at Fort Peck Dam and extends west along both sides of the reservoir and the Missouri River for 125 miles. The refuge is named for the famous western artist who painted the region’s prairie landscapes, rugged cowboy life, and diverse wildlife.

Called the “CMR,” this vast refuge is known for its trophy bighorn sheep and elk hunting. Wildlife watchers look for big game, dozens of prairie songbird species, and two of the state’s rarest carnivores: the swift fox and the black-footed ferret.

See the refuge via a self-guided two- to three-hour auto tour route, reached from two points along U.S. Highway 191 between Malta and Lewistown. Interpretive stops along the 19-mile route provide information on the wildlife, geology, and history of the vast landscape. The auto tour includes the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area, where, each September and October, hundreds of bulls, cows, and calves gather at a 1,500-acre no-hunting zone along the river bottom. The viewing is best during mid- to late September, when rutting bull elk numbers peak.

Where: The auto route starts off U.S. Highway 191 between Malta and Lewistown about 2 miles north of the Fred Robinson Bridge.

When: The refuge is open year-round, but travel on the auto route is best from May through October. Mid-September to early October is the best time for viewing elk at the Slippery Ann area.

Bonus: Wildlife watchers have their best chance of spotting bighorn sheep by hiking on Mickey and Brandon Buttes. In April, look for sage-grouse on mating leks. On summer nights, using a spotlight, look for reintroduced black-footed ferrets hunting prairie dogs at nearby UL Bend NWR, 55 miles south of Malta and within the boundaries of the CMR.


Greater short-horned lizard

80

See a greater short-horned lizard

If ever an animal represented Montana’s dry, open desert landscapes, it’s this squat-bodied creature. Greater short-horned lizards have a widespread range throughout the arid central and eastern parts of the state, from the Rocky Mountain Front to the North Dakota border. But being small, still, and colored like the rocky ground they inhabit, they are tough to spot.

Though also called horned toad or horny toad, the greater short-horned lizard is not a toad (amphibian) but a lizard (reptile). The confusion is understandable because of the lizard’s broad toad-like shape. The greater short-horned lizard is roughly 3 inches long with an oval, flattened body, a heart-shaped head (when viewed from above), a single row of light-colored scales along its sides, and small, hornlike projections near the back of its head.

Where: Dry, open areas east of the Rocky Mountain Front, the bleaker the better

When: June through October

HOW: These perfectly camouflaged lizards are nearly impossible to see unless they move, when they look like a rock with legs. Find a naturalist in eastern or central Montana and ask if he or she knows of any greater short-horned lizard hotspots.

Bonus: When spotted by a predator at close range, the lizard often responds by opening its mouth or performing “push-ups” from all four legs. It also inflates its lungs to puff up and enlarge its appearance.


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