Montana’s varied and dramatic landscapes provide a sublime backdrop to some of the best wildlife watching in America - in fact, the state has a greater range of wildlife than any other of the contiguous 48 states. Big predators such as grizzlies, lynx and mountain lions roam the regions peaks and valleys, co-existing with Bighorn sheep and deer, while the state’s wetlands host an abundance of waterbirds. You can explore alone or hire a guide to help track wolves and bears, or spot birds in the skies above.
Ninepipe Refuge lies in a valley encompassing a 1770-acre reservoir and 800 glacial potholes, framed by the icy peaks of the Mission Range. It was established in 1921 as a "refuge and breeding ground for native birds", and has more than fulfilled its mission – it is now a vibrant wetland wilderness and home to abundant waterfowl. Grebes, Canada geese, great blue herons, ospreys and various species of duck nest there, sharing the space with muskrat badgers and porcupines, while grizzly bears have been known to venture into the refuge from their home in the Mission Range Mountains.
Preserving a million acres of evergreen forests, alpine meadows, snow-swathed slopes and crystal lakes, Glacier is among the grandest and wildest regions in the contiguous United States. Living among its natural wonders are nearly 70 species of mammal and 270 species of bird. Grizzlies roam the forests covering the park’s foothills, along with wolverine, grey wolves and lynx, while a little higher up you can see snow-white mountain goats and sleek mountain lions. The Park offers guided day hikes and guided backpacking trips up to a week long; if you’re hiking alone, be sure to take adequate precautions in case of an encounter with one of the region’s bigger predators.
Selway-Bitterroot is a huge, raw and tough wilderness straddling the Montana-Idaho border. The glacier-gouged Bitterroot mountains circle a jagged chain of ridges and sharp granite peaks, while hidden below all this exposed rock are forest-cloaked canyons and valleys filled with flourishing old-growth forests, split by the fast-flowing Selway river. 1800-miles of trails run through this rugged world, but many are unmaintained and challenging, used far more frequently by the region’s population of bighorn sheep and elk than by any human wanderers.
Custer National Forest flows across a million acres of southern Montana. In the east, thickets of ponderosa pine are interspersed with patches of open meadow, while mule deer, antelope and elk move between the open plains and the shelter of the trees. This is also a great area to see the rare merlin falcon, found here in greater concentrations than anywhere else in the country. To the west, the elevation is higher and pine, spruce and fir forests host grizzlies, black bears, bison and bighorn sheep, albeit in lesser abundance than in neighboring Yellowstone. In this region you can also explore the fascinating Grasshopper Glacier, which contains the entombed bodies of millions of grasshoppers, preserved in the solid ice.
Approached from the east, the Gates of the Mountain presents an impenetrable wall of limestone cliffs draped in pine and Douglas Fir, which is precisely what Lewis and Clark saw when their expedition reached the region in 1805. But the Missouri River cuts a deep gorge through this jagged landscape, parting the crags like an entrance - inspiring Meriwether Lewis to give the wilderness its memorable name. As his expedition continued west, it passed through a rocky corridor, with mountain goats and lions scampering up the canyon’s jagged sides. Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, great horned owls and peregrine falcons circled hungrily in the skies above. Walkers through the wilderness can see the same array of wildlife today, along with otters, deer, squirrels, ermine, beavers and black bears.