History of the Refuge

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge has a rich history that spans dinosaurs, Indians, explorers, outlaws and naturalists.

Millions of years ago dinosaurs roamed the area that is now CMR. Long before the Missouri River existed, Tyranosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Mosasaurus and other creatures lived and died here. Their fossilized remains are occasionally uncovered by wind and water and give a glimpse into the far distant past.

In more recent times (200 to 500 years ago), native tribes such as the Crow, Sioux, Blackfeet and Assiniboine used the area for hunting. The abundant wildlife that native tribes found here was first recorded by Lewis and Clark in May of 1805 as they madebuffalo their way along the section of the Missouri River that now lies within CMR.  

"Saw but few buffalow today, but a great number of Elk, deer, some antelopes and 5 bear"  Meriwether Lewis, May 23, 1805

The elk, deer, bison, grizzly bears and especially beaver, that Lewis and Clark wrote about soon attracted fur trappers and traders. The Missouri was the main route of travel into Montana and small settlements, trading posts and military forts were established along the river. Along with settlement came notorious gangs of outlaws, including the infamous Kid Curry, who used the rough country of the Missouri breaks as hide-outs.

By the 1880’s the Union pacific Railroad was completed which made travel and settlement of the country easier. Homesteaders were lured by offers of free land and reports of lush grasslands ready to be farmed. The homestead boom lasted until 1918 when drought forced many people to leave their land. Those who remained began to understand the lack of predictable moisture in the eastern part of the State limited dry land farming. This, in combination with the Great Depression, caused a mass exodus from Montana in which half of Montana farmers lost their farms between 1921 and 1925.

homestead cabin  large

In 1935, Olaus Murie, a biologist for the Bureau of Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)—traveled to the Fort Peck area to determine if the area should be set aside as a refuge. On Murie’s recommendation, in 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fort Peck Game Range for the following purposes:

 “That the natural forage resources therein shall be first utilized for the purpose of sustaining in a healthy condition a maximum of four hundred thousand (400,000) sharp-tailed grouse, and one thousand five hundred (1,500) antelope, the primary species, and such non­predatory secondary species in such numbers as may be necessary to maintain a balanced wildlife population, but in no case shall the consumption of the forage by the combined population of the wildlife species be allowed to increase the burden of the range dedicated to the primary species: Provided further, That all the forage resources within this range or preserve shall be available, except as herein otherwise provided with respect to wildlife, for domestic livestock ... And provided fur­ther, That land within the exterior limits of the area herein described ... may be utilized for public grazing purposes only to the extent as may be determined by the said Secretary (Agriculture) to be compatible with the utili­zation of said lands for the purposes for which they were acquired.” - Executive Order 7509 
                painting boundary 1949 
For forty years the Fort Peck Game Range was managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). In 1963 the Game Range was renamed the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Range (Public Land Order 2951) in recognition of Charlie Russell, the colorful western artist who often portrayed the refuge’s landscape in his paintings and whose conservation ethic was years ahead of his time.

The administrative status of Charles M. Russell and all other game ranges in the Nation was changed in 1976 by the Game Range Act. This law brought to a close the joint man­agement between the Service and BLM and gave management authority of the game range to the Service. In 1978 the name was changed once again to Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and management of the refuge would follow the policies of the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966.

Beginning in 1986, the Refuge was managed by a resource management plan as part of an Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision signed in April of 1986. In May of 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a new Comprehensive Conservation Plan or CCP that will manage the Refuge for the next 15 years. Through all the Refuge's challenges such as fluctuation in available funding, remote location, and litigation, it has and will continue to manage the land for its outstanding wildlife and habitat values. 

Taking vegetation measurements 1950          taking vegetation measurements 2010