Centennial Valley Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge Montana

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

A Quiet Retreat for Wildlife and People

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was established in 1935 to protect the rare trumpeter swan. Today, this 45,000-acre Refuge continues to be one of the most important habitats in North America for these magnificent migratory birds. The Refuge lies in the eastern end of the Centennial Valley near the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Centennial Mountains border the Refuge on the south and east and catch the heavy snows of winter, providing a constant supply of water that replenishes the Refuge’s 14,000 acres of lakes and marshes. The flat, marshy lands of the valley floor merge into the rolling foothills of the Gravelly Range to the north. This ideal habitat provides the solitude and isolation that are so essential to the trumpeter swan.

The Refuge includes a designated Wilderness Area and is also a registered National Natural Landmark. These special habitats are managed to retain as much of the wilderness character and landscape as possible. Likewise, public use is managed to provide visitors the rare opportunity to experience isolation and solitude.

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is one of more than 500 refugees in the National Wildlife Refuge System - a network of public lands set aside specifically for wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages these lands to conserve wildlife and habitat for people today and for generations to come.

Early Valley Visitors

The Centennial Valley was well known to the Bannock Indians as a favored travel route between the headwaters of the Big Hole River and Yellowstone country. Trapper Osborne Russell, in the mid-1800s, found many bison and signs of Blackfeet Indians in the valley. Settlement by the white man did not occur until 1876. With the settlement, herds of livestock were driven into the valley, and homesteads sprang up at scattered locations.

In the early days, market hunting for waterfowl and the big game brought some revenue to local residents, but most settlers concentrated on livestock and sporadic lumbering. The long winters, great distances to market, and small land parcels combined make subsistence difficult. Few survived the depression of the 1930s. Visitors can still see some of the original homesteads on the Refuge today.

Return of the Trumpeters

The trumpeter swan once ranged over much of the interior of the United States, but their numbers decreased as they were shot for their plume feathers and as their habitat diminished. By the early 1900s, only a remnant population was left in the tri-state area of southwestern Montana, southeastern Idaho, and northwestern Wyoming, as well as in parts of Canada and Alaska. Less than 100 swans were in the tri-state area in 1935 when the Refuge was established. The Refuge provided protection and seclusion, and swan populations increased. Their slow, steady growth continued until the nesting population peaked in the early 1960s.

Current trumpeter swan summer populations for the tri-state area average about 400 birds. This population grows to more than 2,000 trumpeter swans during fall as migrating birds arrive from Canada. Most winter in the nearby Madison River Valley, at Ennis Lake, along the Henry’s Fork River, and further south into Idaho. About 25 trumpeter swans winter in secluded sites on the Refuge.

During the winter, the birds are limited to the confines of the open water on the Refuge and elsewhere within the tri-state area. In earlier years, wildlife managers believed that naturally available foods were insufficient to maintain the growing population. As a result, grain was provided for the swans at MacDonald and Culver Ponds during the severe winters. Wintering swan numbers increased and became crowded enough on the small Refuge ponds to raise concern for the potential spread of diseases. In 1992, biologists throughout the traditional migration route of the swan agreed that the birds should be encouraged to migrate to areas with larger natural bodies of open water. Consequently, the feeding program was discontinued.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has introduced swans from the Refuge to repopulate their former habitats in other areas. As a result, wild flocks of trumpeters are now reestablished in Oregon, Nevada, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Zoos and parks throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe exhibit trumpeter swans originating from Red Rock Lakes birds.

Wildlife Refuge Throughout the Seasons

The diverse habitats of the Refuge attract a variety of wildlife species throughout the year. Each spring, greater sandhill cranes nest in the Refuge meadows and marshes. These long-legged birds are most easily observed in the open areas near Upper Red Rock Lake from April through September. Their courtship display and dance take place in April and May. Great blue herons, willets, avocets, and long-billed curlews are other conspicuous waders and shorebirds that frequently nest on the Refuge.

The Refuge’s lakes, marshes, and creeks provide attractive habitats for a multitude of ducks. Eighteen different kinds of waterfowl, including the Barrows goldeneye, raise their young here each year. In October and November, thousands of ducks and geese congregate on the Refuge before their southward migration. Tundra swans often make their appearance on the Refuge in November.

The timber-covered slopes and aspen stand on the south side of the Refuge prove attractive to blue and ruffed grouse and many different songbirds and raptors. Brewer’s sparrows are among the more common sagebrush residents.

Moose are year-round residents, but most of the elk, deer, and pronghorn are forced to migrate out of Centennial Valley due to the severe winters. Refuge visitors will encounter other familiar mammals such as red fox, badger, striped skunk, and Richardson’s ground squirrel.

Enjoy Your Visit

Feel free to enjoy recreational activities such as fishing, hunting, wildlife observation, photography, hiking, and camping at Red Rock Lakes NWR. The best time to visit the Refuge for most activities is from May through September.

Much of the Refuge can be seen from your car when the weather is good. To preserve the wilderness explorer spirit, there are no artificially maintained backcountry hiking trails. Instead, nature provides many routes created by big game animals. You are welcome to cross-country hike throughout open areas of the Refuge, or follow big game routes and see the Refuge from the wildlife point of view.

Animals are best seen in the summer and fall during morning and evening hours. Visitors are encouraged to learn the habitats and behavior of specific animals, such as moose foraging in willow-covered streams, badgers digging holes in grasslands, and falcons swooping on concentrations of shorebirds. This is the key to successful wildlife viewing on the primitive, undeveloped landscape of the Refuge where artificial facilities have been minimized and wildlife is on the move.

Beginning in May, look for a myriad of wildflowers starting to appear on the Refuge. By July, the Refuge becomes a wildflower paradise. Shooting stars, buttercups, sticky geranium, and Indian Paintbrush color the grasslands in hues of reds, pinks, blues, and yellows.

Staff is available at the Refuge headquarters during weekdays from 7:30 am to 4:00 pm to help you get oriented, answer questions, or provide more information.

Reprinted from U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service pamphlet.

About Us

Our mission is to provide the most comprehensive information site for the state of Montana. We welcome public input and comments.


1627 W. Main #447
Bozeman, MT 59715

Contact Us

Created with love by New Times Media Corporation

We're New Times Media - a friendly and fun group of people. At New Times Media we love to share anything and everything we know about the great state of Montana, so we created this site to make learning about our state as easy as possible. Our site is free to use and has the simplest possible user interface.

Privacy policy:

We use Google Analytics for site usage analytics. Your IP address is saved on our web server, but it's not associated with any personally identifiable information. We want you to enjoy and benefit from our site without worrying about who is tracking you (OK, so Google might track you, but that’s not us!)

Terms of service: the legal stuff

By using our site you agree to our Terms of service. TLDR: You don't need an account to use our site. Our site is free of charge and you can use it as much as you want. You need an account if you wish to list your business or control your business information. You can't do illegal or shady things with a business listing on our site. We may block your access to your page(s), if we find out you're doing something bad. Share anything you see, but don’t use our stuff for your own use without permission from us. We’re not liable for your actions and we offer no warranty. We may revise our terms at any time.