Lake Mason National Wildlife Refuge
Lake Mason National Wildlife Refuge (16,659 acres) is composed of 4 non-contiguous units: 1 around the shores of Lake Mason and the other three upstream on South Willow Creek in northwestern Musselshell County. These are typical wetland areas surrounded by grassy prairie uplands that have been protected for their value to more than 100 species of migratory waterfowl and other birds. The refuge also offers sanctuary to wintering sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and the occasional herd of elk.
Lake Mason itself is about 1,300 acres of natural marsh in the heart of the usual Montana shortgrass prairie hills, about 8 miles northwest of the town of Roundup. The ephemeral wetland covers about 1,250 acres in a natural basin that was enhanced somewhat by the Works Project Administration in the 1930's. When full, the wetlands are abundant with shorebirds and waterfowl but the notoriously dry climate means there is usually no water on the surface once August arrives. The uplands around the wetlands are predominantly short grass prairie but the formerly farmed acreage has been replanted to provide dense nesting cover. The southern half of the Lake Mason Unit is open to hunting in season (non-toxic shot only) and hiking and wildlife observation year-round. The north half of the unit is closed to the public to reduce the human disturbance on the birds. The Lake Mason Unit does offer an access trail, parking area and a primitive boat launch for non-motorized boats. To get there: find your way to Golf Course Road in Roundup and go west about 6.5 miles before turning north to go another 2 miles to the refuge boundary.
The North Unit of Lake Mason NWR is about 25 miles northwest of Roundup. The property is mostly rolling grasslands with some sage brush and grassland bottoms. Jones Creek flows across the property, filling several small, ephemeral ponds for the wildlife. Elk have been seen on the property indifferent seasons, usually traveling to or from the Little Snowy Mountains to the west. The property offers a parking area and access trail: hunting (in season, non-toxic shot only), hiking and wildlife observation are allowed on this day-use only property. To get there: take Highway 87 north out of Roundup for 11 miles. At Snowy Mountain Road go west for 7 miles to Graves Road. Turn north and go 7.3 miles to a small, two-track trail. Go west on that for 2.2 miles to the refuge parking area.
The Willow Creek Unit of Lake Mason NWR is located about 18 miles northwest of Roundup. The land is primarily managed for the benefit of mountain plovers, a species of concern in Montana. That means burning and grazing are regular activities on the land as the growth of the short-grass prairie is necessary for the plovers. Most of the property was homesteaded during World War I but the Great Depression forced most of the folks off the land and the land reverted to ownership by the Government Land Office. A cultural inventory of the area showed evidence of prehistoric occupation, primarily by folks who followed (and hunted) the ancient herds of bison. There are no facilities on the property but hiking, wildlife observation and hunting (in season, non-toxic shot only) are allowed. To get there: Go north of Roundup on US Highway 87 for 11 miles to the Snowy Mountain Road. Go west there, 13.8 miles to the unit boundary.
Map courtesy of National Geographic Topo!