Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge

Created in 1937 by Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide a winter habitat for migratory birds, the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is located in north-central Montana near Malta.

This 15,551-acre refuge is an important place for migratory and nesting birds and offers a variety of natural habitats, including pine plantations, lowland hardwoods, vernal pools, northern swamps, and marshes.

The refuge is also one of the northernmost habitats for bald eagles and North America’s largest nesting colony for ospreys.

In addition to birds, Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge offers a home to many different types of animals and fish that draw scores of hunters and wildlife enthusiasts every year. Depending on the season, visitors may find bobcats, beavers, skunks, and deer throughout these lands.

The creation of the park led to a boom in the population of the once-endangered pronghorn, their continued success in the area is evidence of the benefits of the refuge.

The Bowdoin NWR is open year-round for visitors to enjoy its wetlands, dunes, coastal habitats, and diverse wildlife. Visitors can enjoy hiking, observing wildlife, birding, and exploring the coastal habitats. Visitors may also participate in a variety of environmental education programs offered by Bowdoin staff or partner organizations.

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge Stats

bowdoin national wildlife refuge

  • Size: 15,551 acre
  • Season: Year-round
  • Home to Bowdoin Lake
  • Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Main Attractions in Bowdoin NWR

side view curious hawk

Since its establishment, this refuge has provided a habitat for both birds and mammals by conserving the included wetlands and prairie. 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 within and nearby the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge that can enrich your experiences in the area.

Phillips County-Beaver Creek Waterfowl Production Area

Visitors to the area may also want to peruse the nearby Phillips County-Beaver Creek Waterfowl Production Area. It was established as a refuge for wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds as well as their habitats. Visitors to the site can enjoy wildlife viewing opportunities such as birdwatching, hiking, photography, hunting, and fishing.

Pearce Waterfowl Area

Home to a variety of waterfowl, fish, mammals, and more, there are many activities that visitors can participate in at the Pearce Waterfowl Area. It’s even open in the winter and offers ice skating on the lake and several snow-shoeing trails.

Nelson Reservoir Campground

Though no overnight parking or camping is allowed on the refuge, the Nelson Reservoir Campground is a lovely nearby campsite that accommodates visitors in tents or RVs. Facilities at the campground include a concrete boat ramp and picnic shelters. The lake is a popular spot for fishing and swimming, particularly at the artificial sandy beach.

Main Office

To aid in the refuge’s continued maintenance, the Fish and Wildlife Service operates a small office at its entrance. They are available to offer help and information or answer questions you may have from Monday to Friday, 7:30 am to 4:00 pm.

Recreation Activities in Bowdoin NWR

recreation activities

The Bowdoin NWR is open year-round for visitors to enjoy its wetlands, dunes, coastal habitats, and diverse wildlife. Visitors can enjoy hiking, observing wildlife, birding, and exploring the shoreline habitats. Visitors may also participate in a variety of environmental education programs offered by Bowdoin staff or partner organizations.

Hunting and Trapping

If you are interested in hunting, there are several species of both migratory and upland game birds that are both plentiful in numbers and legal to hunt during the season. While traditional hunting during the season will not require more than a traditional hunting license, you’ll need a special use permit for trapping on the refuge’s grounds.

Visitors can expect to find several species of ducks, pheasants, geese, and grouse within the park, and about 40% of the grounds are open to hunters. There are some additional rules and regulations associated with hunting on any National Wildlife refuge, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules you’ll have to adhere to in advance of your visit.

Environmental Education

The Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge provides different types of environmental education to people such as bird walks, guided tours, lectures, and presentations.

These programs are intended to help visitors learn more about the refuge and all it has to offer, as it is one of the most important places for migratory birds and other wildlife in Montana. You can contact the Fish and Wildlife Service for more information on scheduling an educational activity on the refuge for your group.


There are three boat launches, in the refuge: two on Lake Bowdoin and one on Drumbo Lake. Although boating is permitted for more than strictly hunting, it is only allowed during the season, specifically for waterfowl hunting.


The flora and fauna found in this location make it a popular destination for photographers from all over the world. Lucky visitors during certain seasons may even be able to capture photos of bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and even black bears. The Fish and Wildlife Service encourages photographers of all skill levels to visit, so don’t be discouraged even if you don’t have any more equipment than your cellphone. It’s a great place to begin learning about wildlife and landscape photography!


The refuge has three hiking trails that are open for public use. Each trail offers different options for hikers of different skill levels.

The North Loop is a 3-mile hike with moderate terrain and an elevation change of about 200 feet, while the Middle Loop is a mile longer with an elevation change of about 400 feet. Both of these hikes offer a variety of habitats and wildlife viewing opportunities, including spring wildflower displays, mountain views, wetlands, and woodlands along the shoreline of Bowdoin Lake.

The South Loop is a 7-mile hike with difficult terrain and a completely vertical ascent. Although it starts off fairly easy, at about the halfway point you gain an elevation of 2500 feet.

Auto Tour

Within the refuge is a self-guided, 15-mile-long auto tour road. Along it are several kiosks with interpretive and educational information about the local flora and fauna.

Along the auto tour there are several small turn-offs where you are welcome to park, but please take care when parking in undesignated areas. Though parking anywhere that is safe is deemed okay, venturing too far from the road can damage the fragile habitat.