Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge

An American white pelican

Established in 1935, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located in the Central Flyway in northeastern Montana, and sees more than 100,000 birds in the spring and fall migration seasons. This is the prairie pothole region: gently rolling plains with numerous shallow wetlands left behind by the retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. This area is so productive of waterfowl that it has been recognized as one of the "Top 100 Globally Important Bird Areas in the U.S." by the American Bird Conservancy. The property also became a designated National Natural Landmark in 1980.

The birds seen here include great blue herons, American white pelicans, ring-billed gulls, geese, ducks, swans, double-crested cormorants, sandhill cranes and sometimes even whooping cranes. Medicine Lake NWR contains 22 natural and man-made lakes and water impoundments in addition to numerous small wetlands ("potholes") that cover a total of more than 13,000 acres of the refuge. The remainder of the refuge is a rolling mixed-grass prairie and sand dune mix with a few trees in some riparian areas. This sand dune and rolling hills upland area is the largest of the two sandhill formations in Montana.

Significant areas of native vegetation have been compromised by the spread of invasive exotic plants. This whole section of Montana saw extensive planting of crested wheatgrass on retired croplands in the 1930's and 40's. That original planting has spread extensively since. Smooth brome is another invasive species that appears in moister areas throughout the refuge. You'll also find lesser amounts of Kentucky bluegrass and quackgrass around the property. Russian olive has also become well-established in the native prairie throughout the area. Four species of noxious weeds (Canada thistle, leafy spurge, dalmation toadflax and spotted knapweed) are being aggressively managed for eradication. To that end, grasslands in the refuge complex are being managed through grazing, haying and regular prescribed burns.

More than 273 species of birds have been documented at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and about 125 species breed here. One of the largest colonies of American white pelicans on Earth is on this property and special precautions (including a predator-proof electric fence) have been implemented to provide them (and other birds in that area) with better security. Baird's sparrows, chestnut-collared longspurs and Sprague's pipits, all rare grassland birds, nest on the Refuge prairies and attract serious bird-watchers from all over the U.S.

Waterfowl hunting is allowed in season along the east side of the refuge. Sport fishing is also allowed on 8 of the lakes, including Medicine Lake. Being classified as "wilderness" though, only human-powered craft are allowed on the lake and because of the size of the lake and the strength of local wind patterns, most folks don't go there.

In season, big game hunting is allowed for pronghorn, mule deer and white-tailed deer. You'll also find coyote, beaver, badger, muskrat, pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse on the property. Someone even saw a wolverine on the property back in 1998.

The refuge is open from dawn to dusk but there is no camping allowed. Of the 31,660 acres in the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 11,360 acres are designated as Medicine Lake National Wilderness. Medicine Lake Wilderness is comprised of 2 sections of the Refuge: one being Medicine Lake and all the islands within the lake, the other being the trail-less upland Sandhill Unit to the southeast of Medicine Lake. Travel in the wilderness is restricted to foot and oar-driven boat, and travel is further restricted during the spring nesting season.

Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge

There is a 99'-high observation tower near the headquarters building that overlooks the western half of Medicine Lake NWR. The tower is open year-round, unless weather makes it dangerous to climb the 135 steps to the top. There is also a 14-mile graveled wildlife drive that begins along the entrance road and skirts the north shore of Medicine Lake before passing other lakes and ponds on its way to the pelican overlook, a universally-accessible viewing platform (with binoculars) that overlooks the American white pelican breeding colonies on Big Island and Bridger Point. There is interpretive signage along the way offering more information about cultural and natural resources you'll see along the route as well as info about refuge management practices. You'll also find an observation blind near the sharp-tailed grouse dancing ground (a particular area of the refuge where male sharp-tailed grouse stomp their feet to make a drumming sound before expelling the air (making an incredible gurgling sound) from a purple sac located on their necks, and then beginning the mating-attraction display all over again). The best time to see this starts before sunrise and runs until they stop (usually 1-to-2 hours after sunrise) from mid-April to the end of May. Visiting the blind is free but you'll need to make reservations at the headquarters office as the blind can only hold 2-4 people at a time.

Most gravel roads on Medicine Lake NWR are kept in good condition but they may be temporarily closed if weather creates hazardous conditions. A stretch of Wildlife Drive is usually closed during hunting season (September 30 to January 1) but access to the eastern end of the route is still available via the East Lake Highway.

To get there: From US Highway 2 at Culbertson, go north about 23 miles on Montana Highway 16 to the signed refuge entrance. Go east about 2.3 miles on North Shore Road to the refuge headquarters.

Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Map of Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Photos and map of Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service
Photo of the tower at Medicine Lake NWR courtesy of Kate Thompson and the US Fish & Wildlife Service