Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge
One of the best ways to see the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is to take a drive along the Prairie Marsh Wildlife Drive, a winding gravel road that will bring you in close contact with wildlife and their habitats. Your success in seeing wildlife while on the drive will depend upon your observational skills, timing, the season, and just pure luck. Skill is something that will come with experience. The timing of your visit is critical. Try and arrive early or late in the day when wildlife is most active. You'll see and photograph more wildlife.
Contact the manager in advance of your visit to learn at what season or seasons waterfowl and other wildlife are most commonly seen. Advance planning will increase your chances of observing wildlife and make you less dependent on sheer luck.
Ten numbered signs along the drive correspond to the numbered paragraphs in the leaflet. The information will increase your understanding of the Refuge and make your visit more pleasurable.
The drive begins at the information kiosk and has both one-way and two-way traffic. Please drive slowly being careful not to unduly disturb wildlife or fellow visitors. Wildlife will remain closer to the road if you remain in your car. Stopping is allowed where the road is wide enough for vehicles to pass. Stops 6, 8, and 10, provide opportunities to get out of the car and stretch.
Below is a description of what you will see at each stop of the drive.
Stop 1 - Manipulating Nature
Benton Lake was established as a refuge and breeding ground for birds. To accomplish this mission, work has centered on the development of marshlands and relatively safe nesting areas. Eight marshy areas have been constructed by an intricate hiking system. Within each unit, a wet meadow, marsh and open water are available; ideal habitat for breeding ducks.
Because most ducks nest on the ground, eggs and hens are vulnerable to predation by skunks, raccoons and foxes. To separate eggs from the eggeaters, several nesting islands have been built in the marshes. By encircling the islands, the marshy waters provide a barrier that bars most predators from reaching the nesting birds. Some predator control is also undertaken. The two acre island before you will likely have several Canada goose and up to 100 duck nests as island vegetation improves. Three islands, including this one, were constructed by Ducks Unlimited, a private conservation group.
Stop 2 - Birds of the Open Prairie
The summer air is filled with songs of meadowlark, chestnut-collared longspur and savannah sparrow. These songsters share their prairie domain with upland sandpipers, horned larks and prairie sparrows such as the vesper, lark, grasshopper; and an occasional Baird's sparrow. All of these species are dependent on the remaining stands of native shortgrass prairie found and protected on the Refuge.
Native grasslands are generally rested to provide undisturbed cover for wildlife. This rest needs to be interrupted occasionally by manipulations such as prescribed burning and controlled grazing—services formerly provided by wild fires and grazing herds of buffalo.
Stop 3 - The Old Mullan Trail
It's been decades since the shouts of bullwhackers and the crack of whips have been heard along this almost invisible trail. The freight wagons have long since departed and the sounds heard today are generated by more modern means of transportation and, if you listen closely, by those native residents of the prairie—meadowlarks, horned larks, upland sandpipers, and their brethren.
In the early 1860's, Army Lieutenant John Mullan and a work crew constructed a 642-mile-long wagon road linking the westernmost navigable waters of the Missouri River at Fort Benton, with the easternmost navigable waters of the Columbia River, at Walla Walla, Washington. Though no longer visible on the ground, traces of the old road can be seen from the air.
Stop 4 - Nesting Ducks
In an excellent year, over 40,000 waterfowl have been raised on the Refuge, making it one of the most productive waterfowl refuges in the country. Twelve species of ducks share in this nesting bonanza including mallard, gadwall, pintail, lesser scaup, shoveler; three species of teal, redhead, ruddy duck, and canvasback.
Nesting on the ground can be hazardous to a duck's health. Recall how nesting islands have been built to separate ground nesting ducks from most predators. Another way of safeguarding nesting hens is to grow dense cover that predators find difficult to move through to locate nests. And so, a special planting has been developed—called dense nesting cover—that ably conceals nesting ducks.
Compare the dense nesting cover north of the road with the shorter native grasslands cover south of the road. If you're a youngster, pretend you're a duck sitting on a ground nest. Which field would you feel safer nesting within?
Stop 5 - A Place to Grow
Once ducklings hatch and dry off, the hen will lead them to marsh waters. The refuge has carefully developed just the right habitat for these young flightless ducks—shallow waters rich in food with good stands of cattail and bulrush in which to hide. Watch closely as duck broods can often be seen feeding along the shoreline. At the slightest inkling of danger some broods will quickly vanish into a maze of cattail and bulrush, while others like gadwall seek safety in open water where they can see any approaching danger.
Stop 6 - Ducks Unlimited Project
The structure you just crossed over is not only a bridge but is also a control structure that regulates the flow of water out of Marsh Unit II. The double dike and channel arrangement is the heart of the water delivery system for the lower marshes. Water in these units can be redistributed to where it's most needed by use of a pumping system.
The marsh impoundment on your left was constructed by Ducks Unlimited, Inc. It includes a 330-acre pool, a long dike, three nesting islands and—shades of King Arthur—a predator thwarting moat.
This area is a favorite place to see the yellow-bellied marmots that make their home among the rocks and along the dike.
Stop 7 - Over-Water Nesting
Many species of birds nest in the marshes using a wide variety of nests ranging from floating platforms, a few inches above the water, to tightly woven nest cups secured in the tops of cattails. The large hay bales and upright cement culverts you see in the marshes supplement the muskrat houses or small islands that are favorite nesting sites for Canada geese.
Stop 8 - A Hill with a View
This is a good place to get a mallard's eye view of Benton Lake. From here, you can see how the old glacial lake bed has been subdivided by dikes into eight marsh impoundments.
Control structures allow for the diversion of water into these units. Benton Lake is about 6 1/2 miles long and varies from one to 3 1/2 miles wide.
During migration up to 150,000 ducks, 6,000 tundra swan, 40,000 snow geese and 2,500 Canada geese have been observed on these marsh units. These concentrations often attract endangered species such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons, which feed primarily on those ducks they can catch.
Stop 9 - Marsh Unit I
This marsh, on your left, has all the elements of a classic duck marsh. Its shallow waters teem with microscopic animal life. Plant growth is profuse above and below the water's surface.
Graceful stands of bulrush and cattail are broken up in irregular fashion by expanses of open water. Ducks definitely take to Marsh Unit I.
Yet, hundreds of other wildlife species make this and other Refuge marshes their home. Up to 25,000 pairs of Franklin's gulls, several black-crowned night herons, and white-faced ibis nest in the heavy growths of cattail and bulrush. Colonial nesting eared grebes gather marsh plants to form floating nests. Muskrats, mink, waterfowl, great blue herons, marsh wrens, sora rails, and marsh hawks are among those wild creatures that also inhabit Marsh Unit I.
Stop 10 - Precious Water
Lake Creek enters the Refuge just west of here. Prior to 1964 Benton Lake was dependent solely on natural runoff in the Lake Creek Drainage. Often too little water was received to last throughout the summer resulting in poor conditions for waterfowl during critical periods of brood rearing and migration.
A supplemental water source was obtained in 1957 from the Bureau of Reclamation in the form of return irrigation flows in Muddy Creek from the Greenfields Irrigation District. A Refuge pumping station on Muddy Creek and the associated delivery system were developed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and now provides water annually to Benton Lake. It is now possible to maintain optimum marsh conditions even in dry years.
The quality of Benton Lake's water is a continuing concern. Excessive amounts of salt, nutrients and toxic elements such as selenium, nickel, cadmium, and arsenic and pesticides pose a threat to the long-term productivity of Refuge marshes. Two known sources of these contaminants are return irrigation flows and saline seeps. Saline seeps are low volume springs caused by the fallow-cropping land use. The Refuge continues to monitor this situation and study possible solutions to the problem.
922 Bootlegger Trail
Great Falls, MT 59404
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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