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Montana's wildlife highway.

Bats to bison, prairie dogs to pronghorn, Montana prides itself on wildlife-watching opportunities that today are more often confined to zoos and television than experienced in nature. In a state where elk, deer, and antelope, outnumber people, some of the best viewing is within a few miles of Interstate 90, the state's main thoroughfare and one of the most beautiful stretches of interstate in the country. Through careful management and habitat protection, the state has brought big game numbers back to their highest levels since the turn of the century.

Consulting with state wildlife experts, we selected 13 sites as stops to consider if you're planning a trip to Glacier or Yellowstone National Park (services begin to open in May) or visiting western Montana. We chose these for their abundance and variety of wildlife, for their viewing access, and, generally, for their proximity to 1-90 along the 270-mile stretch from Missoula to just east of Big Timber. Though most of the sites have limited seasons, the majority are free of snow by April. This is the best month to see courtship rituals among large concentrations of migratory waterfowl, many of which are heading north this month. This is also the beginning of calving season for game, and the last time to see large game before they head to higher summer pastures.

You can view the wildlife from your car (it can serve as a blind), on foot, or at some sites, explore the terrain by boat or even mountain bike. But remember, watching wildlife takes time and patience. In general, animals are most active at dawn and at dusk (which can last until 10 P.M. in summer), but there are no guarantees. Bring binoculars or spotting scopes, as animals may be some distance away. For your own safety, don't go too close; for their safety, be sure not to feed, startle, or in any way disturb them.

Unlike the national parks, these detours require little or no advance planning; you can go as the spirit moves you. But you're also more on your own, with fewer interpretive facilities and amenities.

A recent book-a collaboration by state and federal agencies and groups-offers more complete descriptions of our sites and a hundred others: Montana Wildlife Viewing Guide, by Carol and Hank Fischer (Falcon Press, Helena, Montana, 1990; $5.95), gives details about wildlife and facilities (if any) at each one. You can look for the guide in bookstores or call (800) 582-2665 to order. Montana ha furnished its highways with binocular logo signs keyed to the guide's sites.

Area code for Montana is 406. 1. National Bison Range. Only a few feet from the car, the bison's wet nose glistens, backed by a muscular body silhouetted in the sun. It is one of 300 to 500 bison that roam the 19,000-acre range encircled by 19-mile Red Sleep Mountain Drive. These rolling grasslands in the southern Flathead Valley are also the year-round home of elk, prongborn antelope, bighorn sheep, and white-tailed and mule deer.

Visit late April through May to see newborn bison, or go late July through August, when the rutting bulls battle head-to-head.

A visitor center (open 8 to 4:30 weekdays, 8 to 8 daily mid-May through late October) offers movies, slide shows, videos, and exhibits. Call 644-2211.

Follow U.S. 93 about 40 miles north of Missoula to Ravalli; take State 200 west 6 miles to Dixon, then go 4 miles north on County Road 212 to Moiese and the range. 2. Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge and State Wildlife Management Area. Just north of the bison range, this 5,000-acre wetland hosts astonishing concentrations of some 200 species of birds. A popular viewing spot is at the picnic area along the refuge's western edge, south of Ninepipe Dam. Besides migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, watch for resident bald eagles, Canada geese, double-crested cormorants, and great blue herons. Their migration peaks now.

The refuge is partially closed March 1 through July 15 (nesting season) and completely closed during waterfowl-hunting season (October through December). Call 644-2211.

From the bison range, take County Road 212 north 11 miles to Ninepipe refuge (or, from Ravalli, take US. 93 north 15 miles). 3. Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. This 2,800-acre refuge on the Bitterroot River offers close-up waterfowl viewing along a level, unpaved road and (July 15 through September 15) from blinds.

Migrating tundra swans touch down here now. Late April through September, osprey build big nests and raise young in dead cottonwood trees. Call 777-5552.

Drive about 30 miles south of Missoula on US. 93; in Stevensville, turn east on County Road 203 and follow signs. 4. Clearwater Canoe TraiL April (if ice thaws) through October, you can explore this quiet 3 1/2-mile stretch of the Clearwater River, where the only sounds are of a paddle brushing the water, a muskrat or beaver surfacing, or a painted turtle plunging off a log. Common loons nest at the mouth of Seeley Lake (this site is part of the loon's largest breeding colony west of the Mississippi). You may also spot bald eagles, belted kingfishers, bitterns, catbirds, great blue herons, grebes, warblers, western tanagers, and a host of ducks.

Winds often pick up in afternoon here, so stay close to the lake's north shore when paddling east toward the US. Forest Service station (3 miles north of the town of Seeley Lake). Leave your canoe at the station and walk the easy 1 1/2 miles back to your car, watching for white-tailed deer, moose, and mink. Call the Forest Service at 677-2233 for directions to the trailhead, places to rent canoes (reserve ahead), and weather reports. Plan for early-morning frosts in spring; pack warm clothes. Six miles east of Missoula, take State 200 east 32 miles, then State 83 north 16 miles to the town Seeley Lake. Continue 4 miles north (the canoe access sign is on the left, a mile past the ranger station).

5. Babcock Mountain Bighorn Sheep Viewing Area. The Lower Rock Creek herd (about 150 animals) can be viewed year round, although best times are winter (when sheep are at lower elevations) and spring (lambing time). It's not uncommon to see these surefooted creatures chase one another along precariously steep ledges. If sheep are not readily visible here, drive south a mile or two and scan the cliffs. A new hiking trail, open June until snow, traverses grassland and stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Look for white-tailed deer and golden eagles. Call 329-3814. Leave 1-90 at the Rock Creek exit, about 24 miles east of Missoula, then drive south 4 1/2 miles on Rock Creek Road.

6. Lost Creek State Park. You take unmarked roads about 3 miles before reaching this wooded and well-hidden haven along Lost Creek. Forming a cleft in the surrounding mountains, red- and whitetinted limestone cliffs rise abruptly some 1,200 vertical feet on each side of the narrow park.

In spring, you might spot bighorn sheep in the meadows near the park's entrance. Later in the season, they and mountain goats go to higher elevations; look for them on jagged bluffs scattered with quaking aspen (ablaze with gold in autumn). Moose and mule deer are also here year-round. Some winters, you can explore the park's 2-mile-long road on cross-country skis into April. Call 542-5500.

About 20 miles northwest of Butte, exit 1-90 on State I and go west 6 miles toward Anaconda; at the park sign, turn right and go a mile. Turn left and follow signs for 3 miles to the park.

7. Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The sheer beauty of this 40,500acre refuge justifies the 85-mile drive south on US. 287 and State 87 (leave 1-90 35 miles east of Butte). The final 28 miles on unpaved road reveal stunning mountain views as you drop toward the lush plains and glassy lakes of the remote Centennial Valley.

Established in 1935 to protect the few remaining trumpeter swans from hunters, the refuge today has the largest breeding colony in the continental U.S.

Roads here usually open in mid-May; for an update or for other information, call headquarters at 276-3347. May through September, you can see moose, greater sandhill cranes, and 18 species of waterfowl, and fish for grayling (with license). Canoeing (on Upper Red Rock Lake from July 15 until snow, on Lower Red Rock Lake from September 1; bring your own) is the best way to see the birds. To reach West Yellowstone, return to State 87; take it and U.S. 20 east 19 miles.

8. Gates of the Mountains. Unquestionably worth a detour (though it's not far from Helena, the state's capital), this 12-mile round-trip boat ride traces Lewis and Clark's route down the Missouri (Memorial Day through September, $3.50 to $6.50 per person; call 458-5241). From Gates of the Mountains marina, you go up a narrow limestone canyon, where mountain goats and bighorn sheep traverse sheer ledges and bald eagles and osprey circle overhead, swooping occasionally for trout. You may also see mule deer, peregrine falcons, redtailed hawks, and white pelicans.

Ask to be dropped off at Meriwether Picnic Area (it has several trails) and catch a later boat back. At the marina, a small visitor center (10 to 4 weekdays, 9 to 5 weekends) has exhibits and information.

From Butte, take I- 15 northeast about 62 miles to Helena, then go 20 miles farther to the Gates of the Mountains exit. Go east, following signs to the marina.

9. Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Traveling the nearby Jefferson River, the explorers missed this 326-foot-deep labyrinth. The limestone caverns, hidden in the hills above the river, were discovered in the 1890s by local ranchers. May I through September 30, 2-hour tours take you to chambers filled with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, ribbon rock ("cave bacon"), and globular formations known as "cave popcorn" ($4 ages 12 and over, $2 ages 6 through 11, plus $3 vehicle entry fee).

In the upper caves is the state's only public breeding colony of western big-eared bats; females arrive in late April and give birth by July (tours keep bat "nurseries" off limits then). Best time to visit is midAugust through mid-September, when you can see the young testing their wings. A visitor center (open 9 to 7) has interpretive displays. A self-guiding nature trail is good for seeing birds and explaining their habitats. Call 287-3541.

From I-90 at Cardwell, drive southeast 7 miles on State 2, following signs (westbound on 1-90, exit at Three Forks and follow State 2). 70. Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area. Sit against a backdrop of rolling hillsides, this 5,000-acre wetland attracts both resident and migrating waterfowlAmerican avocets, Canada geese, doublecrested cormorants, osprey, and tundra swans. As at other bird refuges, April is mating season, and activity is high. The Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks office in Townsend can provide a map and details; call 266-3367.

But another great spectacle occurs late November to mid-December, as weary kokanee (landlocked salmon) gather at Canyon Ferry Dam (34 miles north of the wildlife area) to spawn, and-in a phenomenon of only the last four years-up to 400 bald eagles arrive to perch and swoop for the feast.

Exit I-90 just west of Three Forks on U.S. 287 and drive north about 30 miles to Townsend; just past town, turn right on U.S. 12 and left on Harrison Road. 11. Missouri Headwaters State Park. The site where three tributaries converge to form the Missouri River was of immense importance to Lewis and Clark and other Western explorers who believed that they could reach the Pacific Ocean from here. Today, the park is a quiet place of importance primarily to birds. Call 28536 10 (8 to 5 May 1 through September 30). Climb along the path above the kiosks to Fort Rock. Look across the Gallatin for great blue herons in cottonwoods. Other birds on the 527-acre site include doublecrested cormorants, golden eagles, Canada geese, osprey, night hawks, rock wrens, warblers, and vireos.

From Three Forks, drive northeast about 3 miles on County Road 205, then left on County 286; follow signs.

12. Northern Yellowstone Winter Range. December through mid-May, some 15,000 elk-the largest concentration in the lower 48 states-roam the snow-dusted slopes just north of and inside Yellowstone National Park. Near the towns of Corwin Springs, Gardiner, and Jardine, this herd-and mule deer, pronghorn, bison, and bighorn sheep-forages for winter food. Look for bald eagles along the Yellowstone River. Call 848-7375.

Leave 1-90 at Livingston and drive south about 50 miles on U.S. 89.

13. Greycliff Prairie Dog Town. This barren plot looks unpromising, but turn off your motor, stay in the car, and the action begins. There are warning cries; then within moments, black-tailed prairie dogs rise to their hind feet to get a look at you. Best time to visit is late March through October (animals are less active in winter). Call 252-4654.

Greycliff is at exit 377 from 1-90, about 7 miles east of Big Timber.
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Date:Apr 1, 1991
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