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Explore the Winter Landscape and View Wildlife

February 11, 2011 | by Diane Tipton
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River Otter (Photo courtesy of Dale DuFour)

In the winter wild animals move to lower elevations—valley bottoms, south facing slopes and areas with more clement microclimates—and that is where winter wildlife viewers will have the best viewing opportunities. But all winter wildlife viewing comes with a stern caution—especially with the hard winter Montana has experienced this year.

In extreme cold and snow, and with limited food sources, wild animals even on the best of winter ranges must limit movement to conserve vital energy—and winter wildlife viewers must embrace this limitation.

"The goal is to view wildlife without interrupting their activities or causing movement. They need whatever energy reserves they have to survive the cold and stress of winter," said Lauri Hanauska-Brown, manager of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' Nongame Species Program.

The basics of winter wildlife viewing etiquette, such as letting animals go about their normal activities, sticking to the sidelines with binoculars or zoom lenses, and trying to think like a wild animal, are available online.

Equipped with this information, winter wildlife viewing can be an inspiring way to reconnect with the natural world and winter's spectacular scenery.

Birders can virtually cover the state between Montana's Northeastern Plains Birding Trail sites and the locations on the Montana Birding and Nature Trail. For details on these trails, go to montanabirdingtrail.org .

Though most of Montana's wildlife management areas are closed this time of year to protect wintering wildlife, portions of some WMA's dedicated to waterfowl, such as Freezout Lake North of Great Falls or Fox Lake near Sidney, are open year round. Roads and turnouts on the perimeters of some other WMAs, such as the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA near Seeley Lake, Fleecer Mountain WMA near Butte and Madison-Wall Creek WMA near Ennis, make it possible, depending on the location, to spot deer, elk, marten, river otter, and coyotes without disturbing them.

Birds are also plentiful on WMAs, including jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, hawks and owls. For details on winter wildlife viewing access on WMASs, contact your regional FWP office or go to the Habitat section of our website.

Montana also has hundreds of local, fairly accessible, fishing access sites with wildlife viewing opportunities—many along major rivers such as the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Watchable wildlife, depending on the location, may include geese, ducks, beaver, big horn sheep, deer, grouse, coyote, fox, badger, muskrat, river otter, and a variety of raptors.

"My favorite is watching the bighorn sheep near Mid Canon fishing access site near Craig," said Chris Dantic, FWP river ranger. "They are across the river from the FAS along Recreation Road. They come down when it gets really cold and eat the grass along the roadside."

Most Montana State Parks are also open year round, for example Travelers' Rest State Park near Missoula.

"There are lots of animals roaming the park at night," said Dale Dufour, a volunteer at Travelers' Rest State Park with a 38-year career in the Forest Service. "I'm often photographing their tracks, including red fox, raccoon, mountain lion, white-tailed deer, bobcat, coyote, great blue heron, black-billed magpie, crow, raven and bald eagle." Dufour said 126 bird species have been identified at Travelers Rest.

Directions to FAS sites and Montana's state parks, which represent a variety of wildlife viewing opportunities, are on the FWP website under Fishing and State Parks.

All this wildlife, and yet Dufour said very few people come to the park for wildlife viewing. Avoid missing out on this wonderful winter activity by clicking on fwp.mt.gov. Prepare to commune with Montana's wintering wildlife.

How to View Wildlife.

The ultimate wildlife watching experience is viewing animals without interrupting their normal activities. Instead of a glimpse, you have an encounter—an opportunity to identify the animal and identify with it.

With the right combination of patience and know-how, you'll be able to witness wildlife without startling them or sapping their energy. It's a feeling you'll never forget!

Montana's wildlife may be spotted nearly anywhere so keep your eyes open going to and coming from the viewing location you select.

Here are some wildlife viewing tips. To learn more, look under our WildThings tab.

Make Yourself Easy to Be Around for Wildlife

  • Figure out the best time of day for viewing by imagining an animal's daily schedule. When does it eat? Nap? Bathe? Drink? Dusk and dawn are usually good bets.
  • Savor the experience of being in an animal's surroundings but unobserved.
  • Use binoculars or zoom lenses to get close-up, keeping enough distance that the animal can go about its normal activities in a natural setting.
  • Make yourself as small and unassuming as possible.
  • Let animals eat their natural foods. State law prohibits the feeding of some common species and the feeding of other species in ways that could result in attracting bear, deer, elk, moose, or antelope.