Exploring the Lee Metcalf Refuge

A walk through the Stevensville wildlife refuge

By AMITY MOORE/Montana Living — A drive through the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge in Stevensville is spectacular no matter the season.

At the entrance from Montana 203, also known as the Eastside Highway near Stevensville, Montana, a bench of upland habitat turns amber in the wake of the summer sun. The taller peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains to the west are dusted in white.

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Those snows have begun pushing the animals down from the high country, and many of them are enjoying the bountiful resources of the refuge. Here on the Lee Metcalf Refuge you can observe white-tailed deer, but the occasional moose, elk herd or black bear have been seen. In the golden grasslands, pheasants strut their brightly colored plumage. Near the entrance there's a weathered, white house, a final reminder of the Whaley Homestead. Peter Whaley, an Irish immigrant came in search of gold along with his wife and their nine children.

He claimed the land in 1877 and built the house in about 1885. He and his family farmed the area around it and raised livestock there until 1905. The house and land passed through many hands until 1988, when its last habitant left. The homestead is now part of the refuge and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Beyond the white-sided house and throughout the refuge's 2,800 acres are 13 man-made ponds. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created the refuge in 1963, it implemented multiple water structures that encourage water to collect in ponds.

The plan for them to attract migrating waterfowl and songbirds has worked; the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is known for its bird diversity. In fact, it's worked so well that the refuge boasts many osprey nests, birds that used to nest by the Bitterroot River but not within the area around the refuge until the water structures were added. A pair of bald eagles have established a nest as well.

Intrepretive signs throughout the short drive into the refuge's interior explain different aspects of the sanctuary. After passing the nine-hole Whitetail Golf Course, land that's within the confines of the refuge but is privately owned, there's a particularly intriguing sign. It shares information on the ponderosa pine, noting not only its size and characteristics, but also a bit of history. Apparently one of Henry Plummer's murderous gang members fled Virginia City, only to be caught by the Vigilantes somewhere near Stevensville and hanged in a ponderosa.

Just inside the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge's entrance there's a parking area with a pavilion and bathrooms. Here, too, there's a map of the area with marked walking trails that will take you past many more wildlife viewing opportunities, ponds and deeper into this unique riparian habitat. Don't forget your binoculars!

- Amity Moore is the former editor of Montana Living

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