Great Places to Watch Wildlife in Montana

yellowstone elk

Photo by David Reese, Montana Living

By Karen Lyncoln

In late winter this year, my partner Lee and I drove east from our home in Seeley Lake to explore some winter ranges. We found an outstanding big game drive that starts and ends in Billings. To get started, drive west to Columbus on I-90, then south on State Road 78 to Absarokee, Roscoe, Luther, and into Red Lodge and the Silver Run Game Range. We saw mule and whitetail deer ambling across the road near the Jimmy Joe Campground south of Roscoe on the East Rosebud Lake Road. And just a few miles down the road in a field east of Luther, we saw a herd of mule deer browsing that winter morning and pulled off to the side of the road to take some photos of these peaceful creatures. Like many Montanans, we enjoy seeing big game during the winter when heavy snows bring them down from the high country, especially when the viewing areas allow us to stay snug in our car, keeping a respectful distance from the foraging animals.

The Silver Run Game Range is just south of Red Lodge off US 212 and offers two viewing areas accessible from the Ski Mountain Road. This road is well maintained and plowed through an upscale residential area. A plowed pullout is located on the left about three miles up the road. If you pull into this main viewing area and look across the canyon, you’ll probably see elk on the ridge. We saw a large herd, between 200-300 head – small to our eyes because of the distance, but identifiable as elk - about 10 in the morning. Remember that winter wildlife viewing requires high-powered binoculars if you want to see any details on the animals.

You’ll find another viewing opportunity just up the road – turn left at the junction with West Fork Rock Creek Road and follow the road two miles. We were somewhat intimidated by a sign about vehicle restrictions, but the road is plowed and maintained during the winter, winding through a subdivision to the entrance of a Girl Scout Camp where there is ample room to park and wait for game to come through. The road isn’t plowed past this point. Or you can park and take off for some walking, snow shoeing, or cross county skiing up the unplowed road. The morning we were there, a musher was harnessing his team for a morning run, his dogs straining to get going in the fresh snow.

To get to the next viewing area, turn around, head back to US 212, and then turn right. Each winter, the Beartooth Highway is closed 12 miles south of town, but there are many plowed pullouts before the closure where you can park and scan the ridges or creek bottom. About a mile south of Red Lodge, we saw the Silver Run elk herd silhouetted on a western ridge (the same ridge we saw from the Ski Mountain Road from another vantage point) that was virtually snow free in the late afternoon, allowing the elk to graze. Moose favor the creek bottom because the trees and shrubs protect them from view while providing forage. You’ll find mule deer in open fields, as long as the snow does not covers the grasses.

This winter Lee and I also explored a big game drive closer to home. The Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area near Seeley Lake is one of the premier elk winter ranges in western Montana; more than 1,400 elk from the Bob Marshall Wilderness use this area as winter range. We’ve found that elk viewing is best at dusk and dawn from the pullouts along the loop from Highway 83 north to the Kozy Korner turnoff at Woodworth Road circling past Upsata Lake and back to Highway 200 near Ovando. You’ll maximize your chances of seeing elk if you look deep into the Christmas-card-perfect meadows, just at tree line where the grass is not covered by snow. All these roads are plowed and well maintained during the winter.

In addition to the possibility of seeing elk and the likelihood of encountering whitetail deer, you may also see wolves on Highway 83 near the Seeley Lake Cemetery (Mile Marker 3) feeding on road kill. Deer often use the narrow highway after heavy snows – resulting in a lot of dead deer – and confirming the cemetery’s claim of being “The Best Last Place.” We saw two wolves perched on a south-facing hillside on Highway 200 near Ovando, counting passing cars. Mike Thompson of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports that these gray wolves are not “re-introduced” wolves but have expanded in the Seeley Lake area naturally from Canada and Glacier National Park. You’re also likely to see resident bald eagles congregating on frozen Salmon Lake snacking on a deer carcass, supplementing their winter fishing on the Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers, which remain open in all but the hardest winters.

Lee and I explore big game winter ranges each year. We like driving tours that give us an opportunity to get out in the winter, watch for animals, and still stay warm.

For any winter wildlife viewing drive, remember to dress warmly, including warm socks, because the best viewing is in the early morning and late afternoon when the animals are most active, probably because they are less visible than in the mid-day sunlight. Winter wildlife watching comes with specific rules for not disturbing the animals. Feeding animals can endanger both you and the animals. And remember that animals that are fed along highways tend to stay near the road, increasing the chances of vehicle-animal accidents - one of which we had on our way to Red Lodge when a deer jumped onto the car – watch out!

Also remember not to pull into access roads or pullouts that aren’t plowed; your goal is to have a relaxing experience, not having to dig your rig out of the drifts. Much of the land around the game ranges is privately owned, so stay on main roads. And depending on the weather you may want to check with the Montana Department of Transportation (1-800-226-ROAD or about current road conditions.

Deborah Richie Oberbillig, Missoula author of Providing Positive Wildlife Viewing Experiences, a handbook published by Watchable Wildlife, Inc. has some guiding principles for “viewing etiquette”:

Observe animals from a safe distance for us and for them by using binoculars, spotting scopes, and viewing blinds for a close view while ensuring that the animals have the room they need to survive the long winter.
Film and photograph wildlife responsibly by using a telephoto lens from a viewing blind or a vehicle.
Always be considerate, including leaving domestic pets at home or in the car, staying on marked parking/pullout areas and trails, and by observing quietly. Avoid slamming car doors and loud talk.
Allow wild animals to forage for their natural foods (even in snow depths that make it appear that food is hard to come by).

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