This buffalo sanctuary northwest of Missoula is home to staggering number of raptors, songbirds, and ducks.
By Susie Wall | Published: 4/11/2017
President Theodore Roosevelt established this refuge in 1908 to provide a sanctuary for American bison. It remains so more than 100 years later and is also an ideal place to bird. In addition to the buffalo roaming the grasslands, a staggering number of raptors, songbirds, and ducks are attracted to the refuge’s mountain forests, shrublands, and river bottoms.
Since foot-traffic is limited due to free-roaming bison, start your visit strolling the picnic area, where massive cottonwoods provide fodder for Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers. Then take Prairie Dr., which is open all year and leads you past the refuge’s grasslands. It’s fun to watch harriers and Red-tails effortlessly glide among the massive boulders deposited by ancient Glacial Lake Missoula.
In the warmer months, jump at the chance to experience the dizzying heights of Red Sleep Mountain Dr. Hawthorn thickets alongside the road are great places to look for Townsend’s Solitaire and Cedar Waxwing. Your destination is 4,885 feet above the Mission Valley, and the view from the top is not to be missed. It’s where I can really practice my identification skills on soaring raptors, especially when I’m trying to decide: Golden Eagle or immature Bald? — Susie Wall
Susie Wall is a freelance writer and photographer and a board member for and the program coordinator of Missoula’s Five Valleys Audubon Chapter. She also wrote about Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, Stevensville, Montana, Hotspot Near You No. 183.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
Rare intermountain grasslands, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests, shrubland, small wetlands, and riparian areas.
Prairie Dr. is a fairly flat, well-maintained dirt road. Red Sleep Mountain Dr. gains 2,000 feet in elevation on a sometimes bumpy dirt road.
More than 210 species. Year-round: American Wigeon, Common Goldeneye, Hooded and Common Mergansers, American Kestrel, Northern Goshawk, Bald and Golden Eagles, Merlin, Dusky Grouse, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Pileated Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, American Dipper, White-crowned Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch. Breeding: Wood Duck, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Avocet, Short-eared Owl, Calliope Hummingbird, Bank and Cliff Swallows, Mountain Chickadee, Pine Siskin. Rare: Ruddy Duck, Peregrine Falcon, Virginia Rail, Long-billed Curlew.
When to go
Spring is best for migrants. Many species can be found year-round. Early mornings best.
Visitor center has a small museum and restrooms. Picnic area. A few short nature trails are in picnic area, behind the visitor center, and at the top of Red Sleep Mountain Dr.
National wildlife refuge. Open dawn to dusk. Visitor center hours limited in winter. Fee $5, but a Federal Recreation Area Pass or Federal Migratory Bird Stamp will get you in for free. Red Sleep Mountain Dr. opens mid-May.
If taking Red Sleep Mountain Dr., make sure you have a full tank of gas and be confident your brakes can handle the 10% downgrade.
For more info
Nine-pipe National Wildlife Refuge
17 miles northwest of bison range along MT 212 and Hwy. 93. Prairie potholes and changing water levels bring an abundance of marsh birds and waterfowl such as American Bittern and American White Pelican.
Pablo National Wildlife Refuge
28 miles northwest of bison range off Hwy. 93. Trumpeter Swans were reintroduced here in 1996 and a successful breeding colony has taken hold.