Wildlife in Central Montana

Great Falls Montana sits on the high plains alongside the Upper Missouri River, surrounded on all sides by satellite ranges of the Rocky Mountains. This unique combination of river, plains, and mountain ecology provides unrivaled wildlife viewing opportunities. Many species, like the grizzly bear and golden eagle, have vanished from other Western states but remain relatively plentiful in the wild spaces of Central Montana.

You don’t have to drive far from Great Falls to see some of our famed locals. Hardy Creek, just a few minutes south of Great Falls, offers excellent bighorn sheep and eagle viewing; and if you watch carefully along the drive you are sure to spot pronghorn antelope, North America’s fastest land animal. For the more adventurous, Glacier National Park to the west has the highest population densities of grizzly bear in the US and is also a great place to see mountain goat, moose, and other iconic species. Review the tips on the best times and places to see animals in Central Montana, and have the camera ready!

Bears
Black Bears
Black Bear Cub

Bears

Montana’s Rocky Mountains are home to both black bears and grizzly bears. While black bears can also be found throughout the rest of the state’s wild areas, the best and safest viewing areas are inside our beautiful National Parks.

The best time of year to view bears is in late May to early June when mothers can often be seen feeding in meadows with their cubs. Early September is also a good time when foraging bears seek to pack on pounds for the long winter.

The Best Bear Viewing Opportunities are:
Glacier National Park | Avalanche Lake Trail and Iceberg Lake Trail are two of the best spots for grizzly bear viewing in the continental US. In May and June, the large meadow areas near these trails are frequented by hungry grizzlies and new cubs. Directions: Avalanche Lake Trail or Iceberg Lake Trail

Waterton Lakes National Park | Waterton Lakes National Park is home to both grizzly and black bears. They can often be seen along the Akamina Parkway, and Red Rock Canyon Parkway roadsides as well as on sparsely populated trails like the Blakiston Valley Trail. Directions: Akamina Pass, Red Rock Canyon Parkway, or Blakiston Valley

Yellowstone National Park | Yellowstone is home to both black bears and grizzly bears alike; thus sightings are common. However, populations are dispersed throughout the park making specific viewing opportunities difficult to predict. The Lamar Valley and the Tower-Roosevelt Junction sections of the park are the best for bear viewing. Directions: Lamar Valley to Tower-Roosevelt Junction

Banff National Park | Driving TransCanada Highway 1 and the adjacent wildlife viewing loops in May and early June yields exceptional wildlife viewing. Bighorn sheep, and occasionally mountain goats are often just feet off the road north of Lake Louise. Elk and occasionally moose are often viewed along the road. Bears, however, tend to steal the spotlight. Spending a day or two along this stretch is almost sure to yield a viewing of a mother black bear and her cubs. They often feed on along the road and visitors should take care while driving. The section from Lake Louise to Jasper and north of Jasper offer the best viewing. Grizzly bears are less commonly seen but also frequent this area. Directions: From Great Falls, travel Interstate 15 north for 121 miles north to the Canadian border. Continue on Canada Highway 2 for 343 miles to Calgary, Alberta. Take the Trans-Canada Highway 1 exit and continue for 79 miles to the Banff National Park Entrance.

Big Horn Sheep
Big Horn Sheep
BigHorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn sheep range throughout most of central Montana’s mountains. Bighorn sheep are often some of the most viewable wildlife as they often show little regard for onlookers and they are comfortable walking along roads and trails. Despite their disposition, these are still wild animals and should not be approached.

The Best Bighorn Sheep Viewing Opportunities are:
Sun River Canyon, Gibson Reservoir | Located just 45 minutes from Great Falls near the town of Augusta, Gibson Reservoir is home to a large wintering herd of bighorn sheep. This herd is part of the Sun River Canyon herd, which is one of the largest in the United States, numbering near 1,000 animals. From January to April sheep can often be seen near the Gibson Dam parking lot or walking along the dirt roads in this area. This portion of the Bob Marshall Wilderness is located in a snow shadow so, the area frequently has very little snow and can be accessed throughout much of the winter by most vehicles. This is an exceptional viewing opportunity because the area is very scenic and the animals can be photographed or studied at short range from inside a vehicle. For road and area conditions, contact the Rocky Mountain Ranger station located in Choteau, 406-466-5341. Directions: From Augusta, travel 19 miles northwest on the Sun River Road to the Gibson Dam parking lot. Watch for sheep during the last four miles.

Wolf Creek Canyon | I-15 just south of Great Falls offers great bighorn viewing opportunities. This is where Lewis and Clark first encountered the species on their way west. Directions: One of the better viewing locations is reached by taking the Hardy Creek exit (Exit 247) off I-15 and traveling south along Old US 91 (frontage road). Eagles are often seen in this area also.

Banff National Park | Driving TransCanada Highway 1 and the adjacent wildlife viewing loops in May and early June yields exceptional wildlife viewing. Bighorn sheep, and occasionally mountain goats, are often just feet off the road north of Lake Louise. Elk and occasionally moose are often viewed along the road. Bears are also very frequent along the stretch from Lake Louise to Jasper. Directions: From Great Falls, travel Interstate 15 north for 121 miles north to the Canadian border. Continue on Canada Highway 2 for 343 miles to Calgary, Alberta. Take the Trans-Canada Highway 1 exit and continue for 79 miles to the Banff National Park Entrance.

Glacier National Park | Grinnell Glacier Trail is one of the most scenic hiking trails in the US and is also an excellent location for viewing both bighorn sheep and mountain goats. For the best chance of seeing wildlife, leave before the first water taxi. The roundtrip is 7.6 miles without the water taxi, but wildlife viewing is much more prevalent. Visit in early September to beat the crowds. Directions: Grinnell Glacier Trail

Waterton Lakes National Park |These guys like to frequent the Information Centre, Prince of Wales hill, town site, and Red Rock Canyon; and can often be found casually grazing. Directions: Information Center, Prince of Wales Bluff, Town of Waterton or Red Rock Canyon Parkway

Eagles
Eagles

Eagles

Central Montana‘s rivers are wintering habitats for a large population of both golden and bald eagles. Springs in the area prevent many of the streams from freezing, allowing the eagles to feed on fish for much of the winter. They can also be found feeding on carrion along the roadside.

The Best Eagle Viewing Opportunities are:
Rocky Mountain Front Eagle Viewing Area | The largest recorded sighting of golden eagles ever recorded was at the Rocky Mountain Front Eagle Viewing Area in Central Montana during the spring migration. In one day, 818 eagles were spotted. The annual migration occurs between early March and early May, with the peak occurring in mid-March. Viewing typically begins around 9 am with the daily peak at 3 pm. Directions: To reach the Rocky Mountain Front Eagle Viewing Area, from Great Falls take I-15 North for 12 miles. Take Exit 290 and follow Montana Highway 200 about 45 miles westward towards Lincoln, MT. A few miles past the Highway 434 crossing, watch for a roadway sign with binoculars. There is a pull-out on the northeast side of the road with an interpretive board.

Kings Hill Scenic Byway | Located within 30 minutes of Great Falls, this stretch of roadway is a wintering location for both Bald and Golden Eagles from December to March. The best viewing is before 11 am. Directions: Follow Highway 89 from Belt to White Sulphur Springs.

Missouri River from Great Falls to Craig | Birding along Montana’s Upper Missouri River corridor provides a multitude of opportunities to see a wide variety of birds and enjoy the beautiful Montana scenery. Directions: Traveling south on I-15 from Great Falls, visitors can take any of the Cascade exits (Exit 256 or Exit 254) or the Hardy Creek exit (Exit 247). From the I-15 exit, traveling north or south along Old US 91 (frontage road) will yield the best viewing. Several public fishing access points along this road provide parking and restrooms.

Elk in Montana
Elk
Elk

Elk

Central Montana is a popular elk hunting region due to its vast elk populations and extensive public lands. However, if viewing elk is your primary objective, there are several protected viewing areas that offer surefire success.

The Best Elk Viewing Opportunities are:
Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area | Up to 500 elk visit the viewing area during September and October making this an excellent wildlife viewing opportunity. The peak of the elk breeding season typically occurs in the second and third week of September. During this time, visitors are likely to hear males bugling and may also witness sparring. The first and last two hours of daylight are the best viewing times. Slippery Anne Elk Viewing Area is located along an excellent 20-mile self guided tour which takes about 2 hours to complete. Directions: From Great Falls, travel 101 miles east on Highway 200. When you reach Lewistown, turn left onto Highway 191 and travel north for 65 miles. Shortly after crossing the Missouri River bridge, turn right onto CMR Auto Nature Tour Road. The Elk Viewing Area is about 7 miles into the self guided tour.

Sun River Wildlife Management Area | This protected area is home to one of Montana’s largest elk herds. Visitors are not permitted to enter the Sun River Wildlife Management Area from December 1st to May 14th. However, elk can often be seen on the plains from Sun Canyon Road which borders the Wildlife Management Area. On May 15th each year, the Sun River Wildlife Management Area opens for a special elk shed event in which visitors can collect and keep shed antlers. Most racks are spoken for by noon so arrive early. Late May and early June are an excellent time to visit the Sun River Wildlife Management Area as this is when the elk calves are born. Directions: From the town of Augusta, take the Gibson Reservoir/Sun Canyon Road northwest approximately 3.5 miles. Where the road forks, take the left fork and proceed west 5 miles to the Wildlife Management Area. Vehicles may enter at the southeast corner of the Wildlife Management Area or 2.5 miles farther west at Swayze Lake. The Wildlife Management Area can also be accessed (walk-in only) at several turnoffs along the Gibson Reservoir Road.

Waterton Lakes National Park | Along with many other animals, Elk roam freely between Waterton and Glacier National Park. They can be seen in groups of hundreds on the Blakiston Fan and other prairie fields that are ideal for grazing. Directions: Blakiston Valley

Mountain Goat
Mountain Goats

Mountain Goats

One of the most iconic species in the Rockies, mountain goats offer a mesmerizing spectacle as they effortlessly climb sheer cliffs. Their bright white coats stand in contrast to the jagged rock. Some of the best mountain goat viewing in the world is located in Central Montana.

The Best Mountain Goat Viewing Opportunities are:
Goat Lick, near Glacier National Park on Highway 2 | Goat Lick offers a truly exceptional viewing opportunity for mountain goats from April until late June. Minerals in the soil here draw dozens of goats to the hillside along the highway. In the morning and late afternoon, the goats and their young can frequently be seen traveling in this area, especially from the designated viewing area. The viewing area is well signed and has restrooms. Directions: Goat Lick can be found on Highway 2, approximately 25 miles west from the town of East Glacier.

Glacier National Park | Goats can frequently be seen along many of the hiking trails inside the Park. Iceberg Lake, Avalanche Lake, and Ptarmigan Lake trails all offer good mountain goat viewing opportunities. Directions: Avalanche Lake Trail, Iceberg Lake Trail, or Ptarmigan Lake Trail

Waterton Lakes National Park |You can catch a glimpse of these cautious creatures at the higher elevations of Mount Alderson, Upper Rowe Lake, and Crypt Lake. Directions: Alderson Lake, Upper Rowe Lakes, or Crypt Lake Trail

Yellowstone National Park Lamar Valley

Moose:

Moose frequent the river valleys and lakes across Central Montana. Unlike elk which are often seen in herds, moose are typically found alone. It’s best not to get too close; moose are notoriously inhospitable and enjoy their solitude.

Glacier National Park: Moose can typically be seen in or around Swiftcurrent Lake or Lake Joshephine shortly after sunrise. Grinnell Lake is a fairly easy hike through great moose habitat.

Bison

Bison “Buffalo”:

Bison, often called buffalo, once roamed downtown Great Falls and most of Central Montana. Today they reside only in several protected areas:

Yellowstone National Park: One of the most frequently sighted animals in the park, bison frequent valleys across the entirety of the park and can typically be seen from the road.

Blackfeet National Bison Reserve: Located about halfway between the town of Browning, MT and East Glacier, MT; the Blackfeet Nation has reintroduced a large heard of bison along the foothills outside Glacier National Park. The bison are often visible along Highway 2 on the way to Glacier Park.

Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada): Six miles north or Waterton Lakes National Park on Canada Highway 6, visitors will find the Waterton Bison Paddock. Several dozen resident bison roam the grassy plains at this location.

Freezeout Lake

Freezout Lake:

These shallow lakes outside Fairfield, Montana deserve special mention not because of one specific animal viewing opportunity but rather the hundreds of unique bird species that frequent this location.

The primary fame of Freezout Lake is for the snow goose migration in early March. Each year some 300,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans converge on the Freeze Out as they return from the Gulf Coast on their way home to Alberta and Saskatchewan. The skies and waters are covered in white dots as the waves of geese and swans reposition in the shallow waters of the lakes. Overhead, raptors of every variety including eagles patrol the skies.

By June, American white pelicans can be found at the lakes. They can frequently be seen riding thermals above the lake in a circular motion that can stretch thousands of feet high like a giant mobile. Shorebirds also appear this time of year including great blue herons and little blue herons. Wood ducks, goldeneye ducks, and loons can also be seen here.