About the Refuge

Bowdoin Aerial 512 x 219

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is one of many national wildlife refuges established throughout the northern Great Plains during the 1930s for migratory birds.

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was established in 1936 as a migratory bird refuge.  It is located in the short and mixed grass prairie region of North-central Montana and encompasses 15,551 acres.  The refuge lies about 7 miles northeast of Malta in the Milk River Valley of Phillips County.  Managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bowdoin is one of over 540 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System - a system of lands set aside to conserve wildlife and habitat and as a place for people to enjoy today and for generations to come.

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge primary purpose is to preserve and enhance resting, feeding, and breeding habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.  The refuge attracts migrating waterfowl and shorebirds by the thousands and provides breeding and nesting habitat for ducks, geese, grassland songbirds, and colonial nesting water birds.  The area is equally important to a variety of resident wildlife, including raptors, pronghorn antelope, sharp-tailed grouse, and coyotes.  Many species of state and federal concern can be seen at the refuge during different times of the year, including bald eagles, piping plovers and on occasion peregrine falcons.

North-central Montana is made up of many depressional wetlands created by glaciers over 12,000-15,000 years ago.  Geologic history indicates that Lake Bowdoin was once an oxbow of the pre-glacial Missouri River channel.  Today, the Missouri River lies nearly 70 miles south of Bowdoin NWR!  

Major habitat types on the refuge include saline and freshwater wetlands, native prairie, planted dense nesting cover and shrubs.  The refuge consists of more than 6,000 acres of freshwater and saline wetlands.  The remaining upland is typical mixed-grass prairie with a complex of western wheatgrass, needle and thread grass, silver sagebrush, and forbs.  The marsh areas are dominated by sedges, while excellent stands of emergent and aquatic vegetation are found in the shallow, open-water areas.


Before becoming a national wildlife refuge, the lands within Bowdoin were managed by the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation).  When President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Bowdoin Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in 1936, the Bureau of Biological Survey (a precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and Reclamation shared jurisdiction.  Lake Bowdoin was managed by Reclamation as a large sump or catch basin for precipitation, runoff events, early spring floods, irrigation return flows, and seepage water from surrounding lands.  

After winters of sufficiently heavy snowfall followed by spring runoff, flood waters from Beaver Creek and the Black Coulee drainage would pour into the lake basin, resulting in high water elevations.  These spring floods most always coincided with the spring waterfowl migration period.  The flooding created conditions exceptionally well suited to waterfowl, both for feeding and selection of nesting sites.  The refuge is located in the Central Flyway, an extensively used flight path for large numbers of waterfowl, marsh and shore birds, and where many of which remain to nest in the area.  Old time residents around Bowdoin as well as early day naturalists and biologists tell of spring and summer migratory bird concentrations that were no doubt the largest in the state. 

1938 Refuge Picture 512 x 219

Upon its establishment as a refuge, work was quickly done to develop the refuge into manageable wetland units.  The establishment and early history of the refuge is tied to the Emergency Relief Act and the Works Progress Administration program.  Created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era of the mid-1930s, these programs were developed to employ the maximum number of people to work on public lands.  Most of the early development work completed through the Works Progress Administration program consisted of the construction of dikes, large rubble masonry water control structures, shelterbelts, landscaping, fencing, and building patrol and access roads.  In addition, a residence for the manager, headquarters/office, shop, vehicle storage buildings, and an observation tower were also constructed.

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The climate of the Bowdoin NWR Complex is "semiarid continental," which is characterized by cold, dry winters and warm, dry summers.  Average annual precipitation between 1905 and 2012 was 12.5 inches, most of which fell as rain from May to September, with June being the wettest month.