Seasons of Wildlife
Spring comes late to Lost Trail with ice melting from lakes and ponds in late March through April. Bald eagles, great horned owls and great grey owls have already chosen nest sites and are incubating eggs by the time spring arrives at Lost Trail. Another early breeder is the Canada goose which often initiates nesting before the ice is completely gone from the ponds. The next to arrive are mallards followed by other waterfowl including common golden-eye, northern shoveler, lesser scaup, American Wigeon, gadwall and cinnamon, blue-winged and green-winged teal. Other non-waterfowl migratory birds also arrive during spring including shorebirds, water birds and smaller birds such as hummingbirds, flycatchers, swallows, warblers and sparrows.
Small mammals are also becoming more active. This is breeding season for snowshoe hares. Marten young are born in April.
In early summer, red-necked grebes dance on Dahl Lake while resident bald eagles look for food for their young.
The landscape is bright green and the air is full of the sound of birds singing and the smell of wildflowers in bloom. Four different species of hummingbirds call the refuge home and although tiny in comparison to other birds, their aggressive behavior makes quite the spectacle to watch. By late June and early July visitors can catch a glimpse of elk calves frolicking as their mothers search for food. Moose calves can also be spotted around wet areas where they graze on nutritious wetland plants. By August the Columbian ground squirrels have already retreated underground for the year. Other small mammals are busy caching their winter food supplies.
Fall brings cooler weather and shorter days. Aspen and larch trees brighten up the Refuge with their bright yellow colors. Other fall colors are more subtle - dogwoods turn red and grasses slowly change into different shades of brown. Waterfowl leave the refuge as wetlands begin to freeze. Smaller migratory birds with their new young also begin their long migrations to warmer areas. Bears spend this time looking for ripe berries to help them put on enough weight to last through their winter time sleep. Game animals react to open hunting seasons by "disappearing" into hidden areas on the refuge only to emerge once again after season closures. Early snow storms and freezing nights hint at the winter soon to come.
Winter brings snow and below zero temperatures to Pleasant Valley. Although many wetlands are frozen, some creeks run year round. The native plants are not affected by the winter weather - they evolved with it. Sometimes the only sign of wildlife on the refuge is the tracks left behind in the fresh snow. Elk feed and hang out on south facing slopes where the winter sun melts the snow first. Wolves howl, coyotes yip and owls hoot during the long nights. Most birds are gone during this period except for flocks of snow buntings (they move here in the winter from areas farther north) and resident birds such as chickadees and ravens. Winter is the "bottleneck" time for wildlife. For some like the ground squirrels and the chipmunks - survival depends on food storage from the previous summer and fall. For others such as elk and deer - it is how much forage was left on the ground for their winter grazing. Not all animals survive the winter months. Every winter some die from natural causes such as old age, injuries, starvation and predation which helps provide food for others such as wolves, mountain lions, bald eagles and ravens.
Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge was established primarily for migratory birds and their foraging and nesting habitats. Like many other Fish and Wildlife Refuges, this refuge was also established for the conservation and enhancement of all fish and wildlife resources including endangered or threatened species.
Every living thing needs a place to live - a place that is just right for them. Each species of plant needs the right kind of soil with just the right amount of wetness. Each animal species needs their own special place with the proper protection to live and reproduce, good water and just the right kinds and amount of food. This place is called habitat. Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge has many different types of habitats and therefore provides suitable places for a vast and unique variety of plant and animal species.
Palouse prairie with native bunchgrasses and forbs grading into forest habitat is a rare ecosystem limited to the northwestern part of the United States. There are more than 1,000 acres of relict, native, bunchgrass prairie that provides wildlife forage, cover, and nesting habitat.
Prior to establishment, the Refuge was a working cattle ranch. Some areas had been overgrazed leading to weedy areas and sparse vegetation with low productivity. Since establishment, all domestic animals have been removed from the refuge. Refuge grasslands are positively responding to over ten years of rest providing food and cover to grassland birds, small mammals and large mammals such as elk and deer. Refuge grasslands are also providing habitat for one of the largest populations of the Federally Listed Threatened plant species – Spalding’s catchfly.
Estimates for refuge grasslands include over 3,400 acres of native grasslands and 1,125 acres of non-native grasslands.
Riparian and Wetlands
Much of thehabitat in the Western United States has been lost or degraded due to flood control, irrigation projects, grazing, logging and development. Pleasant Valley riparian areas were also impacted by some of these same issues. It is estimated that the refuge has over 1,700 acres of riparian areas with adjacent wetlands.
Riparian shrublands consist of tall shrubs such as alder, willow, birch and dogwood. This habitat is important foraging and nesting habitat for a diverse set of migratory birds, including many priority species such as the Willow Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, Warbling Vireo, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Lazuli Bunting. Plans are to improve and restore the stream channels of Pleasant Valley Creek and Meadow Creek especially in areas where it has been channelized and straightened.
Wetland habitats on the refuge include the Dahl Lake wetland complex along with isolated wetlands that are seasonal, temporary, permanent and semi-permanent. The wetland areas on the refuge have tremendous biological potential both for migratory birds and other animals such as amphibians and mammals. Wetlands with diverse emergent vegetation, interspersed seed producing annuals and open water with sub-mergent vegetation provide the habitat requirement of many waterfowl and water-bird species. There are several artificial ponds on the refuge at this time. There are also an unknown amount of fens on the refuge.
Forest and Aspen Groves
Forest habitat is composed of coniferous and deciduous forest occupying approximately 3000 acres of the surrounding slopes of the valley. There are also several small aspen groves scattered across the valley floor. Dominant tree species include lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and quaking aspen. Other species found include western larch, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, grand fir, spruce, juniper, black cottonwood, and white birch.
Many priority bird species are closely associated with the forest habitats on the refuge. Old forest stages are especially important for cavity nesting birds such as woodpeckers. The refuge does not have enough forested areas to provide all life requirements for the grizzly bear, gray wolf, and Canada lynx. But with the surrounding Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Company lands, refuge lands provide an important linkage area for these species. The aspen groves provide browse for rabbits, deer and elk in winter and as well as shade in the hot summer months.
Wildlife is abundant on Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. From the smallest amphibian to the largest carnivore, animal life fills every available spot. Elk bugles, wolf howls, frog calls and amazing singing birds - here in Pleasant Valley you not only see wildlife but you can also hear it. Please remember – not all wildlife viewing means driving along a road while sitting in a car. At Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge visitors have an opportunity to search out and discover wildlife in their natural surroundings.
Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge provides critical winter habitat for ungulate species (elk and deer). Animals that were spread out over large areas during spring, summer and fall can become concentrated in smaller areas of good habitat in the winter months. The Refuge provides excellent winter habitat for these ungulate species. The refuge is important winter habitat for a herd of approximately 300 elk. Elk are commonly seen in groups of cows, calves and spike bulls on south facing slopes where winter snows melt first. Bull elk normally spend winter months alone or in small groups separate from the cows and calves. Elk were not common in Pleasant Valley and Fisher River watershed until the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks made several transplants between 1927 and 1929. The elk population has since flourished. White-tailed deer are year-round residents and mule deer primarily use the refuge uplands in fall and winter. Moose are primarily spring, summer and fall residents on the Refuge. They are occasionally seen in wetter areas of the refuge including Pleasant Valley Creek and at SE, Moose and other ponds. Occasionally moose are spotted in forested areas of the Refuge during winter months.
The Refuge also has an abundance of other mammals - both small and large. Several species of ground squirrels, voles, mice and shrews are commonly found in all Refuge habitats - many are an important food source for birds and larger mammals. The Refuge should be home to several species of bats although at this time, only the little brown bat has been documented. Several Montana Species of Concern potentially use the Refuge or have already be documented on the refuge including: wolverine, Canada lynx, fisher, and grizzly bear.
Moose (Alces alces)
Although most people think of bears and wolves as being the most dangerous animals in Montana, in reality, it can be a moose. Cows are very protective of their calves and all moose can become aggressive during the winter months when food sources are scarce and animals are stressed.
Moose (Alces alces) are the largest antlered animals in the world. Their size and dark brown to black color help make them stand out in comparison to elk and deer. Unlike elk and deer, they are solitary animals for most of the year but can be spotted in small groups during the rut and also on excellent winter range. The refuge provides critical habitat for several moose each spring and summer. Cows calve and summer in the wetlands and meadows located on the refuge. Bulls are also spotted throughout the refuge valley. Refuge moose are occasionally spotted on the refuge during winter months in timbered areas.
Moose breed in late September and early October. Cows usually breed when 2 ½ years old but can also breed as a yearling in areas with abundant food. Cows have one or two light brown calves without spots. Bulls actively fight for the right to breed with a cow which means the largest and healthiest bulls are usually the most successful breeders. After breeding season antlers are no longer needed so the bulls shed their antlers in December or January.
As with most wildlife in Montana, winter time can be the critical time for moose survival. Cold temperatures, deep snow and lower quality food can all impact moose success in surviving a long Montana winter. In spring and summer moose depend heavily on grazing abundant aquatic vegetation and forbs (flowering plants). During fall and winter moose have to switch to less nutritious browse and will eat willow, serviceberry, chokecherry and redosier dogwood twigs and saplings.
Wolves of Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge
Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge is one of the first National Wildlife Refuges in the Intermountain West to support gray wolves.
Prior to European settlement, the gray wolf existed across most of North America. Early settlers perceived the gray wolf as a threat to human life and property, especially livestock. Wolves also competed for deer and elk upon which many early settlers were dependent for food. By the 1930s, poisoning, trapping and shooting extirpated the gray wolf from 95 percent of its range in the conterminous United States. Gray wolf populations were eliminated from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as adjacent southwestern Canada.
After human-caused mortality of wolves in southwestern Canada began to be regulated in the 1960s, the population recovered and began to expand southward (Carbyn 1983). Dispersing individuals occasionally reached the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States (Ream and Mattson 1982, Nowak 1983), but were not protected and soon disappeared. In 1973 grey wolves were protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which provided protection in the Western states and recolonization became possible.
In 1986, wolves that had migrated from Canada successfully raised a litter of pups in Glacier National Park, Montana, and a small population was soon established (Ream et al. 1991). The third pack of wolves to recolonize naturally into Montana from Canada formed in Pleasant Valley in 1988. The wolves denned on private land within 0.25 mile of what is now the refuge. In 1989, there were three adults and three pups in the pack. Unfortunately, they began to prey on livestock and were controlled both lethally and through relocation.
A second pack formed in 1996 in Pleasant Valley and had pups again in 1997 and 1998. Once again, they started to prey on livestock and were removed in 1999. All control actions were either carried out prior to the establishment of the refuge or conducted off the refuge after establishment. After the removal of the Pleasant Valley Pack in 1999, the “Little Wolf Pack” moved down from the north and began killing cattle in the Pleasant Valley area. Four wolves from the “Little Wolf Pack” were killed in two control actions in 2000.
From 2000 until 2004 there were no known packs in Pleasant Valley or Lost Prairie although members of the Fishtrap pack occasionally passed through the area. A new pack of wolves was documented in the Wolf Prairie area northwest of Pleasant Valley in 2004. This pack produced pups in 2004 and 2005. Two new packs were located in the Pleasant Valley area in 2006. The Meadow Peak pack located west of Pleasant Valley bred in 2006 and had at least five wolves in the pack. The Ashley Pack, located east of Pleasant Valley, did not breed in 2006 and consisted of at least 4 wolves. Another pack (the Tallulah Pack) formed in 2008 with activity centered around Lost Prairie. In 2008, the pack consisted of at least 6 and was confirmed as a breeding pair. Two wolves were lethally removed after confirmed depredation in Lost Prairie. A fifth pack formed in the area in 2010 but was not documented until 2011. The Elbow Creek Pack’s territory centers around the east end of Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2011 there were 5 documented packs around the refuge. A trail camera documented 7 adults and 6 pups in the Ashley Pack in June of 2010. The Satire Pack (formally the Meadow Peak Pack) had one collared adult and consisted of 4 adults and 3 pups after two wolves were harvested during the 2011 hunting season. A total of 2 Adults and 6 pups were observed on a trail camera in the Tallulah Pack’s territory. The Wolf Prairie Pack was not located in 2011 but reports continued to come in to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and they estimate that at least 2 wolves remain in the pack. A pup was collared in the Elbow Creek pack in 2011 and the pack consisted of 1 adult and 5 pups in September after 8 wolves were removed after chronic cattle depredation was documented.
Wolves were again heard and tracks were found in the snow by refuge staff during the winter of 2013-14.
Wetland habitat on Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge consists of the Dahl Lake wetland complex along with isolated wetlands that are seasonal, temporary, permanent, and semi-permanent. The wetland habitat on the refuge has tremendous biological potential for waterfowl. Wetlands with diverse emergent vegetation, seed-producing annuals interspersed, and open water with sub-mergent vegetation along with adjacent prairie uplands provide the needed food and nesting needs of many species of waterfowl.
Commonly observed species include: Mallard, Cinnamon Teal, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, Ring-neck, Lesser Scaup, Common Merganser, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, and Canada Goose. All of these species may nest on the refuge.
Water birds and Shorebirds
The Dahl Lake wetland complex is an intermountain valley, wetland system that provides habitat for nesting populations of shorebirds and other water bird species. The complex also provides important habitat for migrating water birds and shorebirds. The remoteness of the refuge reduces public use resulting in less recreation and human disturbance. This is important to species that are highly sensitive to disturbance. Freeze-up on Dahl Lake generally occurs by mid-November and ice remains until late March or April, limiting use of the area by late season migrating and wintering wetland-dependent species.
Water birds known to nest on the refuge include Red-necked and Horned Grebes, and Black Terns. Two pairs of Sandhill Cranes have successfully nested on the refuge in past years. Other water bird species documented on the refuge include: Eared and Pied-billed Grebes, American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, American Coot and Sora Rail. Nesting shorebirds include Killdeer, Wilson’s Phalarope, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Greater Yellowlegs. Several species of unidentified gulls have been recorded on the refuge.
Songbirds, Owls and Raptors
Grassland birds show the most consistent population declines of all groups of birds monitored by breeding bird surveys. Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge now manages refuge grasslands for wildlife and not livestock which will help protect nesting habitat as well as increase food availability for grassland birds. Another group of birds that benefit from Refuge management practices are the cavity nesting birds. The absence of suitable nest sites is usually considered the limiting factor for cavity-nesting species and refuge habitat management plans include the protection of dead or deteriorating trees specifically for cavity nesters.
Migratory bird routes (point counts along refuge roads) have been conducted by Refuge staff on the refuge since 2000. Owl surveys were initiated in 2014. Currently, 159 different species of birds have been documented on Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. Although not documented on the refuge itself, an additional 50 species have been documented in Pleasant Valley.
Amphibians and Reptiles
Reptiles and amphibians are important components of the biological integrity and functioning of an ecosystem. There are known and suspected declines of amphibians throughout North America especially in western states. US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers searched 24 sites on the refuge for reptiles and amphibians in 2001 and 2002. The long-tailed salamander, Pacific tree frog, Columbia spotted frog and boreal toad (species of concern) were all found to breed on the refuge. Also documented were common and terrestrial garter snakes and the painted turtle.
The Refuge has documented one of the largest known populations of boreal toads reproducing in the northwestern Rocky Mountains. USGS researchers are continuing the monitoring of boreal frogs on the Refuge.
Historically Pleasant Valley Creek supported Columbia redband and westslope cutthroat trout. At that time the creek had a natural meandering pattern which kept water temperatures low enough for the native fish species. Pleasant Valley Creek is a tributary of the Fisher River. Rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and brook trout were stocked in the Pleasant Valley Fisher River between 1938 and 1952. Currently, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks are restoring bull trout (federally listed as threatened) into the Fisher River.
Due to past land uses of what is now the Refuge, Pleasant Valley Creek no longer can sustain fish. Water temperature is a critical component of habitat selection for native cold-water trout species. Due to ponding and channeling, the stream depth has been altered so that it is too shallow causing higher water temperatures. The channeling also causes siltation and removed native vegetation from the stream banks. Pleasant Valley Creek’s control structures, culverts and artificial ponds also currently limit fish movement. After current restoration projects are completed, Pleasant Valley Creek could possibly function as a native fish-bearing tributary.
A Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks survey in 2000 found no fish in Pleasant Valley Creek above Road 1019. Below Road 1019 several species were sampled including redside shiner, yellow perch, northern pike minnow, pumpkinseed and suckers. All fish species other than the redside shiner were stunted.