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Montana Wildlife Refuge

Barron Crawford at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
Photo caption
Crawford rides herds where Charlie Russell painted.

It's one of the Treasure State's best kept secrets: 1.1 million acres of wild prairie along 125 miles of the Upper Missouri River. Now protected as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, this area was once territory where Plains Indians, Lewis and Clark, mountain men, trappers, and pioneers crossed paths. Barron Crawford is the refuge's manager.

Q Are wildlife refuges a bit like parks?
A National wildlife refuges operate under a mandate from Congress and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to promote the persistence and recovery of wildlife. They provide habitat for a huge array of animals and plants.

Q Options for visitors?
A In spring and summer, most people come to hike and camp. We get 225,000 visitors a year compared to Yellowstone's 3 million. In many spots, you need to walk for only 15 minutes off a road before you feel like you're in primeval wilderness. In managed seasons, anyone with a license can fish for walleye, trout, catfish, and paddlefish and hunt for elk, mule deer, and pronghorn.

Q The very best time to visit?
A Every season is magical. I like mid-spring, when we get a lot of migratory birds and the fishing season for paddlefish on the Missouri is in full swing.

Q Your favorite destination?
A The UL Bend Wilderness. It has bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer, sage grouse, raptors, prairie dogs, and endangered black-footed ferrets.

Q A tip for people who can't hike?
A On Highway 191 in the refuge's western half, we offer a self-guided 15-mile auto tour

Photography by Andrew Geiger

This article was first published in March 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.