Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge

Projects and Research

North American Waterfowl Management Plan In 1985, waterfowl populations had plummeted to record lows. Historical data indicated that since the first settlers arrived 53 percent of the original 221 million wetland acres found in the contiguous United States had been destroyed. The habitat that waterfowl depend on for survival was disappearing at a rate of 60 acres per hour. The picture was the same across Canada, where a large percentage of the United States' wintering waterfowl nest. Wetland losses across Canada were estimated to be 29 to 71 percent since settlement.

Recognizing the importance of waterfowl and wetlands to North Americans and the need for international cooperation to help in the recovery of a shared resource, the U.S. and Canadian governments developed a strategy to restore waterfowl populations through habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement. The strategy was documented in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan signed in 1986 by the Canadian Minister of the Environment and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the foundation partnership upon which hundreds of others would be built. With its update in 1994, Mexico became a signatory to the Plan. (This is a large file and takes some time to download) 

Intermountain West Joint Venture Plan 2013 The Implementation Plans of the 18 U.S. Habitat Joint Ventures are intended to provide Joint Venture (JV) partnerships with a roadmap for the protection, restoration, enhancement, and management of habitat needed to support populations of birds at desired levels. The plans describe the most important areas for birds within the JV and define what needs to be done in a coordinated fashion to conserve habitat as needed to support bird populations at continental goal levels. 

Wetland Restoration Dahl Lake 2011 

At one time, Dahl Lake, a glacially carved remnant of the Pleistocene Period, stretched the expanse of the valley floor filling the east end of what is now called Pleasant Valley. A sizeable wetland encompassing nearly 1000 acres, the lake was reduced to a mere 180 acres by means of an extensive drainage effort during the 1950's. The intent was to dry up the valley bottom to provide for increased agricultural production and forage for a large cattle and horse ranch.

In 1996 the ranch, known as Lost Trail Ranch (7885 ac.), was purchased by the Montana Power Company. MPC transferred ownership of the property to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) as partial mitigation for wildlife impacts and lost habitat as a result of the operation of an off-site hydro-power plant. In August of 1999, this 7,885 acre property became the 519th refuge to be added to the National Wildlife Refuge System and was officially named Lost Trail NWR.

Upon acquiring the property, the Service began assessing the various habitat types and identifying areas in need of passive restoration, primarily in the form of rest from a century of livestock use, to areas that would require active restoration to restore wildlife values. The most obvious need was the restoration of the wetlands on the Refuge, including, Dahl Lake. In the 1950's an extensive, 1.75 mile drainage ditch was excavated from the west end of the Lake. This massive drainage ditch measured 6 - 10 feet deep by 30 feet wide. The spoils removed from the excavation were left onsite adjacent to the channel. The drainage ditch and water control structure structure
Something temporarily or permanently constructed, built, or placed; and constructed of natural or manufactured parts including, but not limited to, a building, shed, cabin, porch, bridge, walkway, stair steps, sign, landing, platform, dock, rack, fence, telecommunication device, antennae, fish cleaning table, satellite dish/mount, or well head.

Learn more about structure
was used to flood irrigate wet meadow areas for hay production.

After evaluation of various wetland restoration alternatives, it was determined that the most appropriate method to restore the natural hydrology would be to completely fill in the entire ditch. Not only would this method allow for a progression to a more natural state, in terms of ecological function, it was also determined to be the most cost effective. Preliminary estimates to restore the basin ranged from $100K-$160K. Refuge staff began filling the ditch using adjacent spoils in the fall of 2004. The actual construction phase was relatively simple and lasted for about three weeks. It consisted of using two pieces of equipment, a dozer and a front-end loader, working in tandem stripping and pushing the onsite spoils back into the channel.

Total cost of this force account wetland restoration effort was $12,000.

Now it was time to sit back and wait. The valley floor was like a giant sponge that had been dry for over 50 years. How long would it take to re-charge the sponge (refill the aquifer) and restore the lake back to its historic size? Little change in lake size was observed in the first five years after restoration but underground the sponge was starting to fill. Finally the sponge was full and following a good winter snow pack and abundant spring rain in 2011, the lake level began to rise. By early summer the lake covered almost 1,000 acres and once again expanded across the width of the valley.

As of the spring of 2013, the lake has remained near the level reached in 2011. Refuge staff are excited about the changes occurring and the increases in wildlife use.

Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge After Dark, A Certified Dark Sky Sanctuary 

A Sanctuary for Humans and Wildlife Alike; How and Why We Help Protect the Dark Skies of the Refuge

Due to its isolated location in northwest Montana and the new Refuge Dark Sky approved outdoor lighting, Lost Trail NWR has amazing nighttime skies. To help promote this beautiful nighttime sky to the public, Refuge staff have worked with the International Dark-Sky Association to earn a Dark Sky Sanctuary designation for the Refuge: https://www.darksky.org/our-work/conservation/idsp/sanctuaries/lost-trail/

“Dark Sky Places” are designated areas around the world that have been recognized as minimally altered by artificial lighting by the International Dark Sky Places Conservation Program. Their mission is “To preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.”

The first step to being designated as an International Dark Sky Association Dark Sky Sanctuary was to inventory all the current Refuge lights.  The next step was to determine where lighting was needed on the Refuge for the safety and security of our staff and visitors.  If a light wasn’t needed, it was either disabled or removed. Finally, following the five principals below, new dark sky friendly lights replaced all the older unshielded, upward facing lights.

Safe Lighting Solutions

  1. All light should have a clear purpose - Install lighting only when and where it is needed, and light should be no brighter than necessary (USEFUL)
  2. Light should be used only when it is useful - Use energy saving features such as timers, dimers and motion sensors on outdoor lights (CONTROLLED)
  3. Light should be directed only to where needed - Use fully shielded fixtures at home and encourage them at the workplace (TARGETED)
  4. Use warmer color lights where possible - limit the amount of shorter wavelength light (blue-violet) (COLOR)
  5. Light should be no brighter than necessary – Use the lowest light level required (LOW LIGHT LEVELS).
Dark Skies for Wildlife

Not all Refuge wildlife species are active during the daylight hours – many are considered “nocturnal” (active after dark).  In fact, it is estimated that at least half of all Refuge animal species can be considered nocturnal.  Naturally dark skies therefore play a crucial role in the health and survival of these “active at night” Refuge wildlife species. On Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, nocturnal animals include most of the Refuge small mammals as well as their predators. Other nocturnal Refuge animals include: 13 species of bats, 8 species of owls, most amphibian and reptile species and the hundreds of insect species that these animal groups consume during the night. 

By protecting our night skies from the glare of artificial lights, Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge provides more than just an incredible view of the night stars for our nighttime human visitors.  These natural “dark skies” also help maintain the daily cycle of light and dark for the Refuge’s native wildlife and plants.  Artificial light disrupts these natural light/dark cycles and wildlife species and plants are not always able to adapt to this “light pollution.”

Dark Skies for Humans

Light pollution does not just hurt wildlife.  Humans are also negatively impacted by artificial light at night.  Like wildlife, humans also evolved with the natural light/dark cycles of the sky. Due to artificial light pollution, many humans no longer have an opportunity to see the night stars they observed when they were younger.  In many places, younger generations have never seen the truly star filled dark skies above. 

Dark Skies for Refuge Visitors

Due to its more isolated but also accessible location in Northwest Montana, the Refuge is an ideal place to visit and view the night skies.  All current Refuge artificial lighting is environmentally responsible and follows the Five Principles for Responsible Outdoor Lighting. Refuge lands are open 24 hours a day/night and there are multiple designated parking areas along Pleasant Valley Road available for night sky viewing.