Nov 12

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

by Rob Chaney

LEWISTOWN – There is no heart of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, but there is a circulatory system.

This 1.1-million-acre, 125-mile-long territory along the Missouri River Breaks has long been known as the “American Serengeti” by generations of big-game hunters who’ve made pilgrimages there.

Outside of hunting season, the area offers scenery unlike any other part of Montana, stunning herds of elk wandering as they did when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first passed through, and isolation that belies the network of roads seen on a map.

Most people come to the CMR’s west end from U.S. Highway 191 north of Lewistown, although the Fort Peck Lake area to the east draws anglers and boaters. In between lie the Breaks – thousands of gullies, coulees, dry riverbeds and canyons that make the country look like a shattered pane of glass from the air.

This landscape holds bizarre secrets. Hikers have literally stumbled across nearly complete dinosaur skeletons recently eroded out of cliff walls. In the fall, hunting dogs occasionally probe balls of soon-to-be-hibernating rattlesnakes, much to their dismay. Herds of antelope gallop across the prairie,
showing the inexhaustible speed that’s allowed them to escape Ice Age and modern-day predators.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the CMR and the interior UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge and UL Bend Wilderness.

This last finger of land, bounded by the hose-kink of the Missouri River on three sides, is a fully protected landscape with rules similar to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

This often catches hunters by surprise when they learn they can’t use a wheeled game cart to lug their elk to camp.Visitors to the CMR must always watch the weather. Winter storms hit here with “Made in North Pole” stamps still leaking ink, while a rain cloud at any other time of the year is a
warning to get out – fast. What looks like high desert turns to gumbo mud in even light rain, making roads impassable and even walking treacherous until things dry out.

Location: The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge field office is located in Lewistown, which is about 65 miles southwest of the western edge of the refuge on U.S. Highway 191.

Distance/duration: Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area lies about 6 miles east of Highway 191’s Fred Robinson Bridge across the Missouri River and the adjacent James Kipp Recreation Area. Front-country camping is available at the recreation area, and at-large camping is allowed within 100 yards of the river or numbered roads.

Difficulty: While apparently flat, the Missouri Breaks can be tiring due to constant up-and-down climbing of gullies and ridges. Beware of cactus spines, rattlesnakes and rainstorms.

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