Natural Wonders

Wonder about some part of Montana’s natural world?
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Illustrations by Peter Grosshauser and Jeff Tolbert

DeerQuestionWhich are more common in Montana: mule deer or white-tailed deer? And do they ever interbreed?
AnswerMule deer are still more common, though whitetail numbers continue to increase. Montana’s estimated mule deer population is roughly 330,000, and the whitetail population is roughly 240,000. The two species occasionally interbreed, usually a whitetail buck mating with a mule deer doe.

EaglesQuestionWhich is larger: the golden eagle or the bald eagle?
AnswerThey are basically the same size: big. According to the National Audubon Society’s Sibley Guide to Birds, the golden eagle is slightly heavier (10 pounds versus the bald eagle’s 9.5 pounds), but the bald eagle has a slightly wider wingspan (80 inches versus the golden’s 79 inches). From a distance, the way to tell them apart is to know that the bald eagle soars with wings in a nearly flat plane, while the golden’s wings are in a shallow V.

Fishing countQuestionHow many fish does FWP stock each year?
AnswerBob Snyder, FWP hatchery supervisor in Helena, says the figure varies from year to year depending on factors such as egg-taking conditions in Fort Peck Lake and other waters. “But generally, we rear and stock around 8 million trout and salmon annually and between 45 and 85 million fish, warm-water and coldwater species combined,” Bertellotti says.

QuestionWhat percentage of elk hunters shoot a bull elk each year?
AnswerDespite what you might think from reading hunting magazines, relatively few elk hunters bag a bull elk. The overall success rate on bulls, cows, and calves combined for elk hunters in 2003 was roughly 25%. Of the 29,000 elk killed, 13,700 were bulls, making the success rate for bulls slightly less than 12%. Most of those bulls were spikes
and raghorns.

Sick snakeQuestionWhile visiting relatives in Plentywood, we saw a bright green snake roughly 2 feet long. What could it have been?
AnswerYou were lucky to have seen a smooth green snake, one of Montana’s rarest reptiles. Found mainly in meadows, where it blends in with green grasses, the smooth green snake hides under logs, boards, and rocks, feeding mainly on insects.

Deer ButtQuestionOther than the ears, is there some way to tell a mule deer doe from a whitetail doe?
AnswerLook at the tail. The tail of a mule deer, doe or buck, is ropelike with a black tip. The tail of a whitetail, doe or buck, is wide and brown—except when alarmed, when that species flares its tail, exposing the white underside for which the whitetail deer is named.

QuestionIs it true FWP pays no taxes on wildlife management areas and its other lands?
AnswerNo. FWP makes annual payments to counties at the same rate a private land-owner would pay property taxes. The department provides counties with payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, as they are called, totally about $300,000 each year for wildlife management areas and fishing access sites exceeding 100 acres. FWP pays no county taxes on state parks, affiliated park lands, office buildings, or fish hatcheries.

Bison GeyserQuestionCould the seismic and thermal activity Yellowstone National Park ever create a new volcanic eruption in our state?
AnswerNot in Montana, but scientists say a massive eruption from the park itself is long overdue. The next eruption could be 2,500 times the size of the Mount St. Helens volcano. If that occurred, access to the park would likely be closed until further notice.

Scenic drivesQuestionWhich are the most scenic drives in Montana?
AnswerThat’s definitely in the eye of the beholder. That said, the U.S. Forest Service has designated three routes in Montana for their outstanding scenic value: the Beartooth Scenic Byway between Cooke City and Red Lodge, the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway southwest of Butte, and the Kings Hill Scenic Byway through the Little Belt Moun-tains southeast of Great Falls.

Other routes touted as must-see drives include the Going- to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, U.S. Highways 287 (between Augusta and Wolf Creek) and 89 (between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park), and Montana Highways 43 (along the Big Hole River, southwest of Butte) and 69 (south from Boulder).

QuestionI still hear people call your department “Fish and Game.” How long has it been since the name changed, and why don’t more people get the name right?
AnswerThe name was changed to Fish, Wildlife & Parks in 1979 to reflect the department’s expanding responsibilities to manage all wildlife and Montana’s state parks. As to why the “new” name still hasn’t caught on after 25 years, apparently old habits die hard.

Three ForksQuestionWhy are the headwaters of the Missouri designated at Three Forks and not farther up the Jefferson River?
AnswerThe U.S. Board of Geographic Names considers the Missouri River’s origins to be the confluence of the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson rivers at Three Forks, in accordance with the Corps of Discovery’s designation in 1805.

Ronald Grim, specialist in cartographic history at the U.S. Library of Congress, says when Lewis and Clark reached what is now known as Three Forks, in late July, they found three rivers of roughly the same flow and size. “They probably could not determine which was the main branch of the Missouri,” he says. “It’s easy to second guess them now, 200 years later, but it was difficult back then. Bear in mind that at one point they actually thought the Marias River [150 miles downstream] was the Missouri.”

The unofficial source of the Missouri is 298 miles away, up the Jefferson, then up the Beaverhead River, and then east along the Red Rock River to Brower’s Spring, on the Con-tinental Divide near Mount Jefferson and Red Rock Pass.

QuestionWhere did the name Apsáalooke come from, which was used in the March/April issue to describe what are also known as the Crow Indians?
AnswerSusan Stewart Medicine Horse, manager of Chief Plenty Coups State Park and a Crow tribe member, says that Apsáalooke (Ab-ZOLL-ah-guh) is the preferred spelling and pronunciation and that previous versions (Absaroka, Absor-akees) were incorrect.

QuestionWhen duck hunting, I have a hard time distinguishing the brownish hen mallards, gadwalls, pintails, and wigeon. Any advice?
AnswerJim Hanson, FWP Central Flyway coordinator in Billings, provides these ID tips: “A hen mallard is a large, ‘chunky’ brown duck with some orange on the bill and an iridescent blue patch bordered by white stripes on the back of the wing. A hen pintail is a big-but-slim brown duck with a bluish gray bill and a long, ‘pointy’ appearance at the head and tail. A hen gadwall is a brownish duck usually with some orange on the bill and a small ‘window’ of white feathers on the trailing edge of the wing. A hen wigeon has a short, blue-gray bill, a dark smudge around its eye, pinkish flanks, and a small area of white in the middle of the wing.

SurferQuestionIs it true that Fort Peck Reservoir has more miles of shoreline than the California coast?
AnswerIt’s hard to believe, but the reservoir, with its hundreds of arms and points, has nearly twice as many shoreline miles as California’s Pacific coastline: 1,520 miles (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) versus 840 (World Atlas USA). Fort Peck is also the largest hydraulically filled (water and sediments pumped from the river bottom to form the dam structure) dam in the United States.

QuestionIs it possible to visit the site of the Mann Gulch Fire, made famous by Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire?
AnswerYes. The gulch, where in 1949 thirteen smoke jumpers died in a forest fire, is a small canyon running through the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, 20 miles north of Helena. You can get there by Missouri River tour boat, which runs daily during the summer, or by hiking in across the wilderness area. A small monument marks the site where the firefighters perished.

WalleyeQuestionHow do you tell the difference between a walleye and a sauger?
AnswerIt’s not always easy, because they are both members of the perch family, often live in the same reservoirs and rivers, and look almost identical with their long body and glassy eyes. To tell them apart, look at the tail. The lower tip of the walleye’s is white, while the sauger’s is not. Also, the sauger’s first dorsal fin has dark spots, but the walleye’s doesn’t.

Walleyes, which are not native to Montana, are generally larger than sauger, averaging roughly 16 inches and running up to 33 inches. The native sauger averages about 13 inches and runs up to 28 inches. The state records are 16.63 pounds and 8.81 pounds respectively, both from Fort Peck Reservoir.

BighornQuestionI once read there was a subspecies of bighorn sheep in eastern Montana and the Dakotas, called the Audubon bighorn, that went extinct in the early 1900s. Is that true?
AnswerBighorn sheep did disappear from that area back then, but they probably weren’t a separate subspecies. According to research published in 2000 by Rob Ramey, curator of zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, there never was a distinct Audubon subspecies. The “extinct” sheep were just regular Rocky Mountain bighorns that once lived east of the species’s current range. However, the “Audubon bighorn” mystique lives on throughout the northern Great Plains. Read more about the Audubon Bighorn myth here.

QuestionThe Montana state highway map shows the state’s lowest point near the Idaho–Montana border on U.S. Route 2. But where exactly is the spot? I want to actually stand there.
AnswerThen put your waders on, because that spot, 1,820 feet above sea level, is in the middle of the Kootenai River where it crosses the Idaho–Montana border. The river flows from Montana to Idaho, so the elevation drops as you follow it west.

BearpawQuestionAre the mountains southeast of Havre called “Bear Paw,” “Bears Paw,” or “Bear Paws”?
AnswerAs with so many place names, there is no definitive answer. The state highway map has them as the “Bears Paw Mountains,” though history books call the 1877 confrontation in which Gen. Nelson Miles finally captured Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce the Battle of the Bear’s Paw. And Havre area fisheries manager Kent Gilge says everyone in that part of the state calls them the Bear Paws. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the local nomenclature.

Kodiak bearQuestionWhat’s the difference between a grizzly bear and a Kodiak bear?
AnswerBoth grizzly and Kodiak are names given to brown bears, which are found throughout northern Europe and Asia as well as North America, says Mike Madel, FWP bear biologist. The Kodiak is the common name for the brown bear subspecies found off the Alaskan coast on Kodiak, Afognak, and Shuyak islands. Grizzlies are inland brown bears. Brown bears that live along the Pacific coast are called coastal brown bears. Kodiak and coastal brown bears weigh roughly one-third more than their inland cousins.

QuestionTwice in July while fishing, I saw a garter snake with a live sculpin in its jaws. Is it common for land-based snakes to enter the water to catch fish or other prey?
Garter snakeAnswerThe answer is yes for Montana’s racer snakes, garter snakes, and ribbon snakes, says Walt Timmerman, a herpetologist and the Recreation Bureau chief with the FWP Parks Division. However, prairie rattlesnakes, bull snakes, and rubber boas “wouldn’t be caught dead eating fish,” he says. Timmerman adds, “It’s rare for anyone to see a snake eating anything in the wild, so a person who sees that twice in one month is extremely lucky.”


QuestionWere there ever any yaks along the Yaak River?
AnswerNot the horned, shaggy, Asian kind. According to Names on the Face of Montana, by Roberta Carkeek Cheney, yaak is an Indian word meaning “arrow,” which describes how the river “cuts across the bow of the Kootenai River in northwestern Montana and Canada.”

QuestionI thought the Yellowstone River was the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. Then I saw on the state highway map something called the Lower Yellowstone Diversion Dam, a few miles north of Glendive.
AnswerThat structure and several like it farther up the Yellowstone are dams, but they don’t store water like the massive Libby or Yellowtail dams. Roughly 6 feet tall and made of rocks, diversion dams are submerged during high water. But when water is low, they can be seen diverting water from the Yellowstone into irrigation canals.

CoyotesQuestionDo wolves really howl at the moon? Or are they just making noise when the moon happens to be out?
AnswerAccording to Fred H. Harrington, a professor of animal behavior at Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia, howling is a social glue that keeps wolf packs together: The pack that howls together stays together. He says that wolves howl to find their companions and alert rival wolf packs to keep their distance.

As for howling at the moon, it’s possible that wolves may be more active on moonlit nights, when they can see better, or maybe people hear them more often on such nights, because they are out walking around in the light of a full moon. “But a wolf howling at the moon,” says Harrington, “would be wasting its breath.”

QuestionHow do you tell a cutthroat trout from a rainbow trout?
AnswerThe most dependable way, says Mark Lere, FWP Fisheries Division Habitat Restoration Program officer, is to look for the red or orange “cut throat” slash on each side of the lower jaw. Another fairly reliable indicator is that cutthroats have black spots that are more dense toward the rear of the body, near the tail. The rainbow trout’s black spots are more uniformly spread out along the body, Lere says.

Color illustrations of rainbow and cutthroat trout can be found in Montana’s fishing regulations booklet.

QuestionWhat are the odds of drawing a bighorn sheep hunting permit?
AnswerBetter than those for winning the state lottery, though not by much. Hank Worsech, chief of FWP’s License Bureau, says your chances depend on what district you put in for, whether you’re a resident or not, and how many other hunters are applying. “In some places, the odds are less than 1 in 100 most years,” he says. “But in other districts, where access is real remote, there aren’t many sheep, or we allow ewe hunting only, you might have a 50:50 chance or better. There’s no pat answer; it depends on a lot of different factors.”

WolverineQuestionThe Wolverine character in the X-Men movies and comic books has foot-long, retractable, razor-sharp claws. What about real wolverines?
AnswerAccording to Brian Giddings, FWP furbearer coordinator, wolverines do have sharp claws, but they aren’t razor sharp, can’t be drawn in like a cat’s, and are only about 1 inch long. Unlike the fictional superhero character, real wolverines don’t use their claws to slash and kill enemies, either. “They use them mainly to excavate ground squirrels, marmots, and pikas, and to dig through snow to get to elk carcasses in the winter,” Giddings says.

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