The wildlife in our area is so diverse, numerous, and interesting in their own way that it may help to explain the situation by breaking it down into categories. Simply explained, it is phenomenal! Whether you are researching, viewing, hunting or photographing wildlife we are confident that you will not be disappointed. It is truly amazing how one can find some form of wildlife in any location, at any time of year. Consider an area in Northwest Montana with a National Forest of 2.2-million acres. Elevations range from 8,738-feet on top of Snowshoe Peak in our own 94,360-acre Cabinet Mountain Wilderness to 1,862-feet where the Kootenai River leaves the state at the lowest point in Montana. Think about the 7-major rivers in our area which include the Kootenai, Clark Fork, Yaak, Bull, Fisher, Tobacco, and Vermillion. Add to that, the last count of named lakes was at approximately 150. That estimation includes the alpine lakes of 5-acres or more to the largest natural McGregor Lake at 1,240-acres. We are even more blessed with four substantial mountain ranges inside the major Rocky Mountain Range which include the Cabinet, Purcell, Whitefish, and Salish. Finally, frame all that with a large scale county at 3,613-square miles and an unbelievably low population of 19,687 folks according to the 2010 census. Starting to get the picture?
Now let’s analyze the basics of diverse wildlife habitats. This part of Montana is greatly effected by the Modified Pacific Maritime Climate. In a nutshell, this means we have rain shadow effects of the coastal forests of Western Washington. This equates to having more moist plant life and diversity of tree species. Combine this with aspect of habitats and amounts of sun and the rugged terrain and you have a wildlife paradise!
In the valley bottomlands, moist conditions grow giant Western Red Cedars. Moose, bear (both grizzly and black), elk, whitetail deer and historically woodland caribou seek the coolness in summer and the thermal cover in winter. Three members of the weasel family reside here including the fisher, pine marten, and ermine. Pileated woodpeckers hunt for insects here as Barred owls echo amongst the giant cedar trees.
The meandering wetlands host coniferous species such as cedar, western hemlock, Engleman spruce, and western white pine along with deciduous tree species and woodland shrubs. Mink and otter hunt for fish. Beaver and muskrats build lodges and mounds. Great Blue Heron fish with spearlike bills. Along the lake shores, eagles, water ouzels, belted kingfishers and osprey hunt for aquatic prey. Fish-eating ducks including mergansers and grebes feed extensively. Swans, both Tundra and Trumpeter roam the area with snow geese, Canadian geese, and Sandhill Cranes.
Drier mid slopes grow Douglas fir, western larch, and lodgepole pine with some ponderosa pine present in real dry areas. This is a major belt of habitat that provides winter range and is home to whitetail and mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, Bighorn sheep, mountain lion, bobcat, wolf, coyote, red fox, Great Horned owls and many hawk species as well as golden eagles. Both black and grizzly bear roam these areas that support large prey bases and this zone is an excellent place to study predator/prey relationships.
At 5,000-to-6,000 feet elevation we start in to the subalpine region of sub-alpine fir, lodgepole pine and Engleman spruce. Up here, Rocky mountain goats jump cliffs like acrobats. Canadian lynx hunt snowshoe hare, pica and blue grouse. We might spot a nest of Peregrine Falcon in the rocky cliffs. Boreal owls swoop down on red backed voles. The eerie howls of a wolf pack serenade the Northern Lights.
Greater than 6,000 feet elevation, there are many challenges. In the krummholz territory, scattered and stunted trees such as mountain hemlock, whitebark pine, and alpine larch survive a rough existence amongst rock crevices, strange superbelt rocky mountain tops, high snow volumes and tenacious winds. Here, only the strongest survive. A male wolverine exits his multi chambered den beneath the snow. He is headed to feed on the carrion of an avalanche killed mountain goat. To his surprise, he crosses paths with a female grizzly bear on her way to munch on a stash of whitebark pine nuts. The two potential adversaries lock eyes and the sounds emitted are terrifying. After a long moment, they both decide to go their own way, a behavior known in wildlife biology as mutual avoidance. They know any wound to themselves could be fatal up here. It is real. It is brutal. It is Montana.