Projects and Research

Research, inventory, and monitoring are the backbone of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. With science, we can actively learn and adapt management strategies for the betterment of the wildlife and habitat that make up Refuge lands.

Grassland Songbird Research

Three upland songbirds have been identified as target species of concern on the refuge.  They are the Baird's sparrow, Sprague's pipit and chestnut-collared longspur. A long-term grassland bird study from 1995-2005 on the refuge compared vegetation measurements taken at nest sites to measurements taken at random sites throughout four study plots (445 acres total) for all three species. Researchers found the Baird's sparrow preferred nesting habitat with greater litter depth (averaging 8 inches) and taller vegetation (averaging 14 inches) than that found at random sites. In addition, it was found the sparrow selected sites devoid of clubmoss and bare ground. The Sprague's pipit used nest sites with intermediately tall (averaging 12 inches), vertically dense, vegetation and nest patches (16 foot radius plot around the nest) with greater litter cover and depth, while avoiding areas with prickly pear cactus. The pipits selected areas with less than 20% clubmoss cover, few shrubs, and little bare ground. The chestnut-collared longspur prefers to  nest in sparser areas, with less grass and litter cover, and more clubmoss cover than the other two bird species.

Water Quality Monitoring

In the dry west, the quality, availability, and use of water are a hot topic. Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge utilizes the same delivery system as farmers do in the Milk River Valley, but instead of growing wheat as the farmers do, the water on the Refuge is used to provide valuable wetland habitat for birds through the seasons. Water monitoring of both surface and ground water in wetland basins and canals, allows us to track water quality and quantity conditions. For this part of Montana, our biggest water quality issue is salinity. Salts naturally occur in this area, but changes to the landscape have altered the ability of basins to naturally flush. Enhancements to these basins have made a once temporary wetland more semi-permanent, thus holding water for longer periods of time. Holding water for longer periods and the lack of flushing has led to an increase in salt concentrations, especially in Lake Bowdoin. As for water quantity, the lack of water in this region is due to low precipitation (avg 12"/year) and high evaporation rates (avg 24"/year). Therefore, the refuge is dependent on delivered water to fill wetlands.

Since the wetland complex found on Bowdoin has been enhanced by water control structures, it is important to monitoring water quality and quantity, and other habitat characteristics. Monitoring assists managers in creating management plans to maintain all the wetland basins productive, dynamic, and fully functional for a whole host of wetland dependent birds.

Colonial Bird Surveys

Birds such as the American white pelican have been nesting on the refuge since before its establishment in 1936. Bird surveys of colonial island nesting birds (American white pelican, double-crested cormorant, great blue heron, ring-billed gull, California gull, and Caspian tern), colonial over water nesters (Franklin's gull, white-faced ibis, and black-crowned night heron), and other colonial nesters (common tern, Forster's tern, eared grebe) allow us to monitor changes in their populations.

Just because their numbers fluctuate from year to year doesn't capture the entire story of each of these bird species. These birds rely on many other places in North American, and throughout the year, for their life cycle needs. Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is one of these places. Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge provides migration habitat and a place to breed, raise, and feed their young. Whereas other refuges and areas may also provide migration habitat, and more southern areas serve as wintering grounds.

Duck Banding

Banding of birds goes back to 1585 for Europe, and 1803 for North America. In 1920, the banding program in the United States was started when Frederick Lincoln was tasked with organizing a system that would allow all banding data to be housed in one location with developed numbering schemes and record keeping procedures.  With these efforts, banding has provided information on population estimates, migration patterns, life span, survivability, productivity, and disease prevalence.  In fact, the well known migration corridors or flyways were discovered due to banding efforts of waterfowl.  Banding is still occurring today across the country by Refuges, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and researchers, along with those in Canada.  Waterfowl banding at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is one piece of information in a large effort to continue gathering knowledge for better management of this group of birds.  Come early September, over-water, swim in traps are set up in wetlands to capture ducks.  The species, gender, and age of the bird are recorded, a band is placed on the leg, and the birds are released.  These banding efforts are in large part due to the help of refuge staff and volunteers, and are a great way to connect to nature.

Mourning Dove Banding

Mourning doves are an important game bird, especially in the southern states.  Banding of doves allows managers to make informed harvest management decisions when a banded bird is reported, as information such as distribution and longevity are determined.  Since 2003, mourning doves have been banded in the United States.  In 2012, Bowdoin implemented their first banding program on mourning doves. Banding occurs between July and August, with traps set to capture doves during early morning and late evening feeding. Wire mesh traps capture doves as they walk through funnels following a trail of millet, and are unable to walk back out since the opening is smaller on the inside.  With each bird trapped, the age, gender, and molt stage are taken before being banded.  With the new band on, birds are placed in the palm of the hand for release.  Like waterfowl hunters, hunters who bag a banded dove are encouraged to report in the banding information to the Bird Banding Lab.  Also, any banded birds found dead should be reported in.  By doing so the knowledge loop is closed for each bird banded.

Mourning doves almost always lay two eggs and may raise four broods a season here in Montana, and up to six broods in the southern part of the country. Both parents share responsibility for the nest, incubating the eggs until they hatch, and feeding them until they fledge. The recently fledged young will stay with the male who continues to feed them for one to two weeks, roosting at night near the nest. Meanwhile, the female lays another set of eggs and continues to incubate the eggs until hatching. Once the last set of young are hatched both parents tend to the young doves. Come September, mourning doves are typically finished with nesting and flocks start to congregate in preparation for a southerly departure.

Upland Vegetation Inventory

All across the northern great plains, select refuges came together to work on a study that would focus on management of native prairie, referred to as Native Prairie Adaptive Management (NPAM). The study is intended to help land managers better respond to threats of invasive species invasive species
An invasive species is any plant or animal that has spread or been introduced into a new area where they are, or could, cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health. Their unwelcome presence can destroy ecosystems and cost millions of dollars.

Learn more about invasive species
in our native ecosystems. 

To enroll in the study each Refuge conducted an all-inclusive inventory of their uplands. The study is designed to focus on better management of native prairie, areas never been plowed, so determining a non-native or invasive vegetation component within the native prairie was essential. Data from the inventory was then entered into a computer model that not only analyzed percent of native versus non-native plants but accounts for prior management practices within the study plot areas. Based on the results of data entered, the computer model then makes a suggestion in management technique, such as resting, prescribed burning, grazing, or a combination of these techniques to be conducted the following year to better assist in reducing the percentage of non-natives within the study plot area. The entire process is then repeated each year and another management technique is suggested. 

With multiple Refuges working together a diversity of data is collected across multiple states. Study plots that encompass all types of native prairie and several geographical regions aid in better understanding which techniques work best in converting grasslands dominated by non-native vegetation to ones dominated by native vegetation.

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge started its vegetation inventory in 2011, and enrolled 2 study plots in 2012. By participating in this study, native prairie of northern Montana would be represented in the study, helping fill-in missing information needed to better manage and protect our native prairies. Current Refuges enrolled within the study range from Montana to Minnesota.