Pelicans- Wildlife

The Refuge wildlife is a rich fauna of native prairie and wetland species. The abundant birdlife is impressive by any standards, and was the reason the Refuge was established in 1935.

Amphibians & Reptiles
Threatened & Endangered Species

Bird List
Pelican Study
Far a Field: Sharp Tailed Grouse

The refuge complex provides breeding and migration habitat for a diverse group of bird species. In fact, the refuge complex has been designated one of 500 Globally Important Bird Areas in the United States by the American Bird Conservancy. The refuge complex bird list includes 283 species seen in the area since the refuge was established.

The refuge complex is central to the breeding ranges of the prairie songbirds endemic to the northern Great Plains, many of which are experiencing alarming population declines. From 1995 to 2000, the most abundant breeding songbirds in refuge grasslands were grasshopper sparrow, Baird's sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, and Savannah sparrow. Western meadowlarks, clay-colored sparrows, lark buntings, Sprague's pipits, and bobolinks were also common.

The importance of this area to breeding and migrating waterfowl has long been recognized and was the primary reason for the purchase of the refuge in 1935. Most common nesting ducks are mallard, gadwall, northern pintail, northern shoveler, blue-winged teal, and lesser scaup, with a total of 14 species breeding locally. More than 300 pairs of Plains Canada geese breed in the refuge complex.

Spring and fall migrations bring thousands of waterfowl to the refuge, mostly ducks, Canada and white-fronted geese, and tundra swans, with a smaller number of snow geese. Refuge wetlands provide habitat for many colonial-nesting waterbirds, including western and eared grebes, California and ring-billed gulls, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, and American white pelicans. The large pelican colony on Big Island and Bridgerman Point has been in existence since at least 1939, and is one of the largest colonies in the United States , with about 3,000 to 5,000 nests each year.

Other marsh-nesting birds breeding in the refuge complex include American bittern, rails (Sora, yellow, and Virginia ), and terns (black, common, Caspian, and Forster's). A large (40-60 acre) breeding colony of Franklin 's gulls is located on nearby Manning Lake , an expansive, temporary and semi-permanent wetland complex in the floodplain of Big Muddy Creek, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Thousands of migrating shorebirds are found throughout the refuge complex, especially in drier years, when low water levels leave large areas of exposed shoreline. Thirty-five species of shorebirds have been observed in the refuge complex, and 12 species breed there. Several upland-nesting shorebirds are common breeders in native prairie habitats: marbled godwit, willet, upland sandpiper, and Wilson's phalarope. American avocet, killdeer, spotted sandpiper, and piping plover are the most common wetland breeders.

Sharp-tailed grouse are one of the few native prairie birds that are year-round residents. They commonly breed on native prairie throughout the refuge complex with about 20 leks (or “dancing grounds” for bird display and courtship behavior) located on the refuge. Sharp-tailed Grouse Viewing

Several nonnative bird species introduced from other countries, including house sparrow, European starling, and rock dove, have spread to Montana .

Mountain Prairie Region Piping Plover Page

Species List

Thirty-eight species of mammals have been observed in the refuge complex in recent years. White-tailed jackrabbit, beaver, muskrats, and many small mammals are common. Richardson 's ground squirrels are an important species, providing a prey base for other prairie species, such as ferruginous hawks and badgers, and burrows for burrowing owls and various reptiles and amphibians. White-tailed deer have increased with agricultural development and are now abundant. Mule deer and pronghorn antelope are sighted occasionally around the refuge complex, and are more common in the western portions of the complex.

Many of the large mammals native to northeast Montana were extirpated from the area during late 1800s and early 1900s by bounty hunters and settlers. Wolves, elk, bison, swift fox, and grizzly bear were abundant in this area when the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled through in 1805. Lewis and Clark killed the frst grizzly bear of their expedition 25 miles south of Medicine Lake near Culbertson , Montana . Swift fox were declared extinct in Montana in 1969, but the refuge complex is within their historic range. Swift fox have been reintroduced in Saskatchewan and on the nearby Fort Peck Indian Reservation. They have re-established populations in some prairie areas, and are expanding their range. One sighting was reported in the refuge complex, in northern Sheridan County in 1999.

Amphibians and Reptiles
Species List

At least 17 species of amphibians and reptiles are found within the refuge complex. Tiger salamanders, northern leopard frogs, and chorus frogs are the most common amphibians. Painted turtles and garter snakes are the most common reptiles. The smooth green snake, locally common, is found nowhere else in Montana . Western hog-nosed, smooth green snakes, and northern leopard frogs are state species of special concern. While northern leopard frogs are experiencing widespread declines in other parts of Montana and North America, they remain relatively abundant in the refuge complex.

Species List

More than 26 species of fish have been documented within the Big Muddy watershed of the refuge complex. On the refuge, fewer fish were present before the development of water management facilities, because wetlands periodically dried up completely. After installation of refuge dikes and water control structures, more permanent water was maintained. Fish gained access to the refuge water units by migrating from the Big Muddy Creek and other tributaries. Most common species were fathead minnow and carp.

Several attempts were made over the years to establish a fishery, and stocking northern pike to control large numbers of carp was successful in the late 1960s. An exceptional northern pike fishery developed in Medicine Lake , and the refuge became well-known. However, little reproduction occurred, and restocking was required annually. The fishery was eliminated during the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s due to low water levels and winterkill.

The return of high water flows in 1993 and 1994 again brought forage fish back into the refuge. White pelicans, great blue herons, grebes, and other birds feed extensively on these fish. Stocking of northern pike resumed in 1996, and the northern pike fishery is again well-established at Medicine Lake . Few, if any, fish inhabit wetlands in waterfowl production areas, since the basins are not deep enough for fish to survive the winter.


The diversity of invertebrates in the refuge complex has not been well-quantified, though they are an extremely important component of the ecosystem! Refuge wetlands produce huge numbers of invertebrates such as midges, dragonflies, amphipods, copepods, and water boatmen. Prairies and other grasslands produce large numbers of insects (notably grasshoppers, leafhoppers, butterflies, beetles), and spiders. These invertebrates are the food base for nearly all breeding bird species. Two butterfly species of special concern, Ottoe skipper and tawny crescent, have been collected in the refuge complex.

Threatened and Endangered Species
One migrant bird species, the whooping crane, and two breeding bird species, the piping plover and least tern, found in the refuge complex are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Endangered whooping cranes occasionally migrate through the refuge complex, using area wetlands and grain fields for foraging. Endangered interior least terns nest on islands and gravel bars in the Missouri River , the southern boundary of the refuge complex.

A significant portion of the threatened Great Plains population of piping plover breeds in the refuge complex. A network of closed alkali lake basins in the northeast part of the refuge complex typically supports 85 percent of Montana 's breeding plover population and 5 to 10 percent of the entire Great Plains population. This population was listed as threatened in 1985.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Piping Plover

One endangered fish species, the pallid sturgeon, occurs in the Missouri River along the southern boundary of the refuge complex. No threatened or endangered plants are found in the refuge complex.



American bittern with plain's garter snake.

Refuge prairies yield a bounty of small mammals for hunting coyotes.

Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
223 North Shore Road
Medicine Lake , MT 59247


Office Hours
Monday – Friday 7:00 am to 3:30 pm
Mountain Standard Time

406/789-2305 PHONE
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The prairie-nesting marbled godwit is a common shorebird at the refuge.
Male chestnut-collared longspurs put on a showy breeding display.
The black-headed Franklin 's gull is the one true ‘prairie' gull. It breeds only in the northern Great Plains.
Dragonflies are a major invertebrate predator around refuge wetlands.
Piping plovers nest along the graveled, alkali shores of shallow wetlands.