Wildlife & Habitat

Two American avocets are reflected as they stand in calm water on long black legs.  Known for their long upcurved bills, avocets are large sized waterbirds with white bodies, black and white wings, and a long neck and head of a golden color.  Photo by USFWS

Nestled in the Mission Valley of Lake County Montana, the nine Waterfowl Production Areas of Lake County are located within the Flathead Indian Reservation and are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System – an extensive network of lands set aside for specifically for wildlife. The Service works with neighboring land managers, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP), to manage these WPAs as part of a larger wetland and upland vegetation community. WPAs are managed to attract and produce migratory waterfowl, migratory non-game birds and resident wildlife.

  • Wetlands for Waterfowl and Water Birds

    A blue-gray Great Blue Heron flies over water, with its long wading legs trailing behind and its long neck curled into its body.  Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

    Historic glacial activity in the Mission Valley created a rolling terrain of intermountain grasslands on the valley floor interspersed with many small wetlands called kettles. These kettles were formed from melting glacial ice and are of enormous value to many wildlife species. Even within this rich and productive environment, the Waterfowl Production Areas provide unique benefits to wildlife by being among the few places in the valley where hunting, fishing, wildlife dependent recreation and conservation are the driving priorities.

    The wetland habitat supports abundant waterfowl species such as mallards, northern shovelers, gadwalls, redheads and ruddy ducks. It has become an important breeding and staging area for a large portion of the Flathead Valley Canada goose population. Red-necked and western grebes nest on the refuge. American bitterns and sora rails can often be seen and heard. Non-breeding white pelicans spend the summer feeding and loafing. There is an active rookery of great–blue herons and another of double–crested cormorants.

    With the Mission Mountains to the east providing a dramatic backdrop, look for an abundant variety of waterfowl species, including trumpeter swans, Canada geese, mallards, and blue and green wing teal. Shore birds such as American avocets, black-necked stilt, Wilson’s phalaropes, Wilson’s snipe, spotted sandpipers, and killdeer can also be seen.

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  • Uplands and its Birds

    A colorful male pheasant, with a dark glossy green head, red feathers around the eye, bronze feathers on its back and long tail feathers, struts among dried grass stalks.  Photo by Dave Menke, USFWS.

    The grassland areas of the Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA) provide important nesting habitat for ducks and geese. It is also home to a variety of upland bids such as ring-necked pheasant, gray partridge, short-eared owls, northern harrier and savannah and song sparrows. Long-billed curlews can be found nesting in the valley grasslands and are part of a study with the Montana Bird Conservation Partnership (MBCP).

    WPAs are managed to attract and produce migratory waterfowl, migratory non-game birds and resident wildlife. The most common tools used include grazing, haying and prescribed burning, which are followed by a period of rest. Working with local ranchers, cattle are allowed to graze on certain WPAs using a permit system. This grazing closely mimics the effects native bison provided to stimulate plant growth. Prescribed fires are used to rejuvenate grasslands. These controlled burns mimic the prairie wildfires of long ago to stimulate native grasses and reduce invasive species. Another tool available is haying which involves cutting and removing grass for later use by livestock. To protect the ground nesting birds, haying is only allowed after July 15, by which time most nesting has been completed.

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  • Winter Birds

    A rough-legged hawk soars over the winter grasslands of the Mission Valley, its long wings with their distinctive black elbow patch and dark belly identifying the raptor.  Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick, volunteer, NBR/USFWS

    Montana does not have a reputation for warm winter weather. The season can bring blowing snow and bone chilling cold. However, we are “south” for some migratory birds.

    A few species actually migrate into the valley to spend the winter, including rough-legged hawks, seen soaring over the grasslands. This is also a good time of year to see bald eagles in the area. Other wintering raptors can include snowy owls and gyrfalcons. Townsend’s solitaires and waxwings are found feeding on berries along the rivers and creeks. Watch for northern shrikes hovering and hunting over the grasslands.

    Most potholes freeze over so the numerous mallards and Canada geese tend to rest on the Flathead River. But they fly to the grasslands and farmlands to feed, with rafts of thousands flying overhead.

  • Mammals of the Grasslands

    Night-time photo of grizzly bear using underground wildlife crossing courtesy of Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Montana Department of Transportation

    Since most of the Wetland Management District (WMD) is composed of open water, resident mammals include those dependent on, and able to live with, water.  Or they must be able to deal with more open habitat. Common mammals include muskrat, striped skunk, mink, field mice, and meadow voles. A few white-tail deer will be seen on the uplands.

    Grizzly bears will sometimes move down from the Mission Mountains to forage on sedges and grasses, and to hunt for rodents on the WMD and surrounding lands. The bears need to cross Highway 93 to reach this area and, unfortunately, one or two bears are killed each year. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Montana Department of Transportation are working together to develop crossings, both under-highway passes and wildlife bridges, to reduce casualties, not only for bears, but other wildlife using the Refuge and surrounding areas. Many have already been installed along Highway 93 both north and south of the Refuge and are monitored to determine effectiveness. Designs for the Ninepipe area are in the works. Click on "Learn More" to go to the Tribes’ Wildlife Crossing webpage to view more photos. 

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