Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge

By Rick & Susie Graetz

Mid-May, 5:00 a.m., the lifting fog, a product of a cold night, is catching 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 of to the excitement.

The previous weeks saw 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 northeast Montana’s Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge. 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 is 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 it 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 and 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 for its water. 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 early-day use.

The piping plover, a rare bird, actively breeds in the wetlands. Their flute-like call is one of the great sounds of nature.

Set aside in 1935 via a presidential order, MLNWR has grown from an original 23,700 acres to 31,660 acres. Part of the landscape, 11,360 acres, is preserved as the Medicine Lake Wilderness Area. It includes the main lake and the unique sand hills in the southeast section. Management of this national treasure is entrusted to the good hands of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

More than 100,000 migrating waterfowl make Medicine Lake their warm weather habitat. Great blue herons, white pelicans, geese, grebes, and ten different species of ducks share this prairie ecosystem with countless other birds. Each year, as many as 30,000 ducklings are produced. 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 have up to a nine-foot wingspan and 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 show up. All the winged creatures leave by around the first of November when the lakes begin to freeze. Coulees that drain towards 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.

It’s an easy place to see. Refuge headquarters is about two miles to the east of the highway on the western edge up the lake. An observation tower, rising 100 feet above the office, offers a great view of virtually the entire wildlife haven. A self-guided 14-mile long tour route leads to other view points, including Medicine Lake Overlook to the east of the refuge’s buildings. In the southwest corner, off of Hwy 16, a road goes to a day-use area and some high hills that also afford excellent views of the lakes and surrounding prairie country.

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 to 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.