Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge: A Stunning Prairie Oasis
Medicine Lake Fog: Fog rises above a sleepy Medicine Lake on an early autumn morning. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of Northeast Montana’s most alluring gems. And early spring is a delightful time to explore it.
Mid-May at about 5 a.m., the lifting fog, a product of a cold night, catches the first light of a mellow sunrise. The tall grass and reeds take on a gold and orange hue while the surrounding water gathers all the colors of the sky, transforming its surface into a pastel painting. The crisp air is noisy, as the entire neighborhood chats in profusion. Grouse, performing their mating ritual, add a distinct sound to the excitement. The previous weeks witnessed a raucous homecoming – a tradition carried out each year as tens of thousands of geese, ducks and birds fill the spring sky on their way back to Medicine Lake. This prairie oasis, bordered by seemingly endless stretches of wheat fields, witnesses one of the great wildlife spectacles in America.
Just 22 miles south of Plentywood, Medicine Lake NWR is in part located above the former channel of the Missouri River. Before the last ice age, the river ran north to Hudson Bay. A glacier moving out of Canada forced the waterway to turn south. When the massive flow of ice receded, it left a blanket of glacial till, resulting in rocky, rolling hills interspersed with numerous wetlands, marshes and ponds.
Medicine Lake is the largest of these bodies of water. For its water, it depends upon summer thunderstorms, winter snowmelt, the flow of Big Muddy Creek reaching the area from the north and Lake Creek coming from the northeast. The name is derived from medicinal herbs and roots Indians gathered around its shores. An exploration of the surrounding higher terrain shows teepee rings and other signs of long-ago use.
More than 100,000 migrating waterfowl make Medicine Lake their warm weather habitat. Great blue herons, white pelicans, geese, grebes and 10 different species of ducks share this prairie ecosystem with countless other birds. Each year as many as 30,000 ducklings are produced, and every fall more than 10,000 sandhill cranes spend a week here. Foxes, raccoons, pheasants and deer also populate the area.
The refuge boasts the largest pelican rookery in Montana and third largest in the nation. These magnificent birds nest on the big island in the middle of Medicine Lake. More than 2,000 white pelicans are born each season.
The piping plover, a rare bird, actively breeds in the wetlands. Their flute-like call is one of the great sounds of nature.
Geese are the first to arrive. Showing up in February and March, they set up their territory and prepare for nesting even before the ice melts. It’s usually late April before Medicine Lake thaws, just in time for the summer dwellers to arrive. All the winged creatures leave by around the first of November when the lake begins to freeze. Coulees that drain toward the lake offer shelter for the animals that stay throughout the long cold months. Winter at Medicine Lake is quiet, as ice and snow dominate the landscape and temperatures can plummet to 50 degrees below zero.
As you tour the refuge, you’ll note some cultivated areas. Farmers plant grain fields on several hundred acres each spring. The refuge keeps about one quarter of the potential harvest and then lets it stand as a wildlife food source. This practice helps keep birds and animals out of the local fields.
Although wildlife is there throughout the summer, May, June and October are the best months to see Medicine Lake. July and August can get quite hot. Montana's warmest temperature on record was documented here when the thermometer reached 117 degrees on July 5, 1937.
University of Montana | Department of Geography | Rick and Susie Graetz