Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Originally established in 1935, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located in northeastern Montana, and is a part of the Medicine Lake NWR Complex. Spread over an area of over 30,000 acres, this refuge comprises both prairie and forest land interspersed with interconnected lakes and marshes.

The refuge was created to provide a habitat for animals, some of which are endangered or threatened with extinction. Some animals that live here are black-tailed prairie dogs, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and bobcats.

The refuge is also home to the only known population of endangered Mississippi kites in North America. The lakes on the refuge are home to many species including largemouth bass, bluegill sunfish, and freshwater mussels.

There are more than 100 species of birds that use this property as an important stop on their annual migrations during spring and fall migration periods – rare bird species even make it to this location.

The refuge also provides a habitat for other animals during times of drought with more than 700 acres of wetland habitat that nearly always contains water.

Plantlife in the refuge includes willow trees, salt grasses, rushes, cattails, and many other types of flora that are native to the area. Conserving these indigenous plants is an integral part of maintaining a balanced, healthy habitat for its resident birds, mammals, and fish.

Because these lands are so painstakingly maintained and preserved, it provides an awesome opportunity for visitors to see large and unique populations of wildlife, pristine river-fed lakes, and vast, uninterrupted stretches of virtually untouched Montana prairie.

Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge Stats

medicine lake national wildlife refuge montana

  • Size: 31,533 acres
  • Season: Year-Round
  • Home to Medicine Lake Wilderness
  • Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Main Attractions in Medicine Lake NWR

sharp tailed grouse

The Refuge is a haven for all kinds of wildlife and a wide variety of habitats that attracts more than 10,000 visitors every year. Many of them come to see one of its more notorious sites or regions, including some of the attractions listed below.

Medicine Lake

The lake has a deep blue color and is surrounded by a forest. Both fishing and boating are allowed on the lake, though if you’re going to do the latter, only bring a non-motorized boat like a canoe or a kayak.

Medicine Lake Wilderness

Medicine Lake Wilderness is a designated protected area within the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the southeast shores of Medicine Lake, there are even further protections for wildlife in these 11,366 acres of wilderness, though recreational activities such as hiking and hunting are still allowed within certain parameters.

The wilderness area includes the Sandhills Unit: a particularly unique portion of the reserve with predominantly native grasses and brush patches. Because there is a lower incidence of invasive species in this portion of the refuge, it attracts different populations of wildlife that visitors can enjoy and photograph.

Wildlife Drive

Beginning at the entrance road to the refuge, Wildlife Drive is a self-guided auto-tour through the grounds. Visitors can experience the diversity of wildlife that live within the reserve from the comfort of their car, and there are several interpretive signs along the way that offer further information about the flora, fauna, and geology of the region.

The route follows 14 miles along Medicine Lake’s north shore through wetland and grassland habitats. It will lead you to one of the most popular sites in the entire refuge: the viewing platform at Pelican Overlook.

Here visitors can use the provided binoculars to see the American white pelican colonies on Big Island and Bridgerman Point, which usually consist of about 10,000 members.

Sharp Tailed Grouse Observation Blind

Many people visit Medicine Lake Wilderness Montana to observe the sharp-tailed grouse. Thankfully, there is a perfect observation blind at TK which is particularly popular during mating season.

The blind is situated right by the predominant sharp-tailed grouse dancing ground within the refuge, offering visitors an up-close and personal view of this eclectic annual display.

Mating season is somewhat short – only lasting from the beginning of April until the end of May – so the blind becomes available only by reservation during this time. Though it takes a bit of foresight to use, the unusual mating dance of this small prairie bird is worth the effort.

Recreation Activities in Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge

large whitetailed deer buck

The Refuge provides a variety of activities that visitors can enjoy. The refuge is open to hunting, fishing, hiking, and even snowshoeing in the winter. Some activities may require a permit, reservation, or license, so be sure to double-check with the Fish and Wildlife Service in advance of your trip.


Because it attracts so many species of waterfowl and even some big game, Medicine Lake NWR attracts many hunters. While hunting is permitted on its grounds, you must have a valid Montana hunting license and adhere to some refuge-only rules that don’t necessarily apply elsewhere.


For anglers, Medicine Lake is most famous for being an ideal habitat for several different types of trout, including rainbow, lake, and brown.

For those visiting in the winter, both open water and shoreline fishing are allowed, though any materials such as shacks, stools, or supplies must be removed from the lake ice by March 1st. All anglers must have a valid Montana fishing license, and adhere to all rules concerning the type, size, and quantity limits.


A map of Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge has been created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for public convenience. The map displays all public access sites, including campgrounds, boat ramps, fishing sites, and hiking trails within the refuge boundaries. Though it can be useful for all visitors to the refuge, it’s particularly good for those who intend to explore the grounds on foot.

Related Articles