Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a protected area in Montana that was created in 1929. It has been managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1967 largely to help preserve waterfowl habitats and is a member of the Western Montana National Wildlife Refuge Complex along with 10 other protected areas.
Though most of it is composed of wetlands, when you are visiting Benton Lake NWR you will also find many different habitats and ecosystems that help the wildlife to survive. This includes forests, wetlands, and grasslands that provide important cover for animals.
It is particularly famous for the proliferation of birds that live there. In addition to the migratory waterfowl that it was created to protect, the refuge is home to nearly 200 species of birds total including cranes, eagles, osprey, ducks, geese, swans, and even pelicans. It also provides protection for native mammals such as coyotes, muskrats, badgers, and deer.
When Montana was first inundated with settlers, folks tried to use these lands for a handful of different commercial uses, including irrigation. Though remnants of some of these projects can still be seen today, the region has largely recovered.
Thankfully this land has benefitted greatly from its protected status so it is available to witness in its natural state by visitors like you to this day.
Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Stats
- Size: 12,459 acres
- Season: year-round
- Home to Benton Lake
- Managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Main Attractions in Benton Lake NWR
Since its establishment, this refuge has provided wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl and conserved wetlands along this major flyway. Within it, you’ll find a melange of habitats and animals that draw thousands of visitors a year, though your trip will be far more enjoyable when you have all the information and resources that you need.
Below you’ll find some helpful venues in and around the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge that can enrich your experiences in the area.
Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
A place where tourists can learn about the history of the lake and how it has evolved to be one of the most important migratory bird habitats in the country, the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center has scores of interesting and important information for your trip. There you’ll find maps and ideas for activities within the refuge, as well as permits and practical information to guide you on your visit.
If it will take you more than a day to fully appreciate the natural bounty of the region, you can consider a stay at the Benton RV Park and Campground. In addition to having large sites with full hook-ups for RVs, they offer space and facilities for tent campers.
As its namesake was an important environmentalist to Montana’s history, a visit to the C.M. Russel Museum in nearby Great Falls can only complement a visit to the refuge. Inside you’ll find a mix of permanent and rotating exhibitions including a vast selection of landscape paintings created by Charlie Russel himself.
Recreation Activities in Benton Lake NWR
This Wildlife Refuge is a great destination for people who want to enjoy the outdoors. It offers fishing, hiking trails, and wildlife viewing.
Some activities within the refuge will require a permit, but the rangers at the Visitor Center are always happy to give you all the information you might need for a responsible visit.
Auto Tour Route
This auto tour route is a great way to see wildlife and all the natural beauty of the refuge. This tour is 12 miles long and takes about two hours to complete. Along the way, there are ten numbered stops with information about that particular area.
Hunting and fishing are allowed in Benton Lake NWR, under the rules set forth by the U.S. Forest Service. The refuge has plenty of wildlife to hunt, such as ducks, geese, squirrels, pheasants, and rabbits.
The most popular hunting season in the refuge is in the autumn when hunters come for deer season, though winter brings several species of waterfowl that draw their own crowd of hunters.
If you plan on visiting the refuge to hunt, you’ll have to follow the U.S. Forest Service’s hunting regulations to prevent yourself from inadvertently endangering the fragile ecosystem of the wetland.
Fishing season in Benton NWR begins on June 15 and ends on October 15. You’ll need a fishing license, but if you don’t already have one they can be purchased at the Visitor Center.
It has an abundance of common carp, smallmouth bass, and walleye that are stocked by the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department. This is to ensure that the lake stays healthy and the fishing public has ample access even during times when there’s no natural reproduction.
If you do plan on fishing here, keep in mind that your average catch from the refuge will be much smaller than other lakes and streams in Montana.
What is colloquially called Benton “Lake” is technically a marsh, and its shallow waters generally don’t produce fish of considerable size.
Because Benton National Wildlife Refuge provides a safe habitat for many species of animals, it’s a phenomenal location for wildlife viewing. Though it is famous for its waterfowl, the refuge is home to many mammals and aquatic animals as well.
The types of animals you’ll be able to see will change throughout the year, but thankfully the Forest Service has created a guide that will give you an idea of what to expect seasonally.
A popular spot for photographers, this area is home to approximately 600 species of animals and plants, including the bald eagle. In order for visiting shutterbugs to enjoy the habitat without disturbing the animals that live there, the Forest Service maintains an observation blind where one can take photos without being detected.
There is an observation log kept inside, so be sure to record anything interesting you see within it.
A family-friendly, 4-mile long hike, the Loop Trail isn’t too strenuous, making it accessible to most visitors. Along the way, visitors will find great opportunities to see wildlife as well as enjoy the views of the lake.